How to change Organization Culture ? 

Culture is a complex phenomenon. Many people have studied culture from different perspectives, and all came up with different descriptions. What most agree is that culture is formed by groups of people that live, work, sport or creed together. Depending on the shared intentions or values of a group and composition of the group, the culture within that group can vary significantly from other groups in which the same persons participate. 

Culture is an essential mechanism for people to live and act together. It dictates what we collectively - at least within a group - think is right or wrong behavior. It is the glue that holds us together.[1]


A good example of how one person can adhere to very different (even contradicting) values was the story of a soccer fan who had seriously misbehaved in the stadium. He was arrested by the police and later gave an interview on tv. Turned out that his behavior in the stadium was not an incident. Among his group of hooligans his behavior was heroic. In contrast, in the office he was a normal colleague who adhered to all (unspoken) rules. 

The above example shows how easily one can adapt to two completely opposite set of values or cultures, as long as the groups are clearly separated.

Anthropologists have not succeeded in capturing culture in one clear framework or set of dimensions. At we use two frameworks that also also illustrates the differences between organizational and national cultures.


The well-known ‘onion’ from Geert Hofstede is used to explain national and social cultures. The three-layer model of Schein is used for organization cultures. Common theme is the fact that culture is a layer phenomenon that differentiates between things one can easily observe from the outside and values and assumptions that are deeply hidden and more elusive. Organizational culture is heavily influenced by national culture. For example, if a company has a branch in a country where the national culture is characterized by a high power-distance it is unlikely that this branch has a low power-distance. Even though the head quarter may be in a country with a low power distance.

Despite the above, organization cultures are much easier to bend and adapt to a new strategy or goal compared to national cultures. The simple reason is that national and social culture are programmed in our brain almost from the day we were born. Organization cultures only come in our life after we start to work for a new company, and many of us change jobs now and then. Therefore, we can much easier let go of the values and assumptions that characterizes an organization culture and adopt new ones. At least, if they are not too much conflicting with our national values.

The most important lessons of the above are 1) culture is a layered phenomenon, one has to pay careful attention to the deeper layers, as there lie the roots of resistance, and 2) organization culture can be changed much easier than you might think.

How to change organization culture? Our method consists of seven steps:

  1. Reach consensus on the current culture
  2. Reach consensus on the desired future culture (e.g. based on new strategy or company targets)
  3. Determine what the changes will and will not mean, described as concrete as possible for people’s actions and behaviors, processes, tools, reward-systems etc.
  4. Identify illustrative stories and cases
  5. Develop an action plan, consisting of small concrete actions
  6. Implement changes one by one
  7. Measure results adjust plan where necessary and most importantly celebrate results !

Last but not least, culture change involves all people in an organization or team. Leaders must take the initiative and lead by example. All others must be ‘on board’. The culture change grows from the ground up, by the actions and behaviors of all people together.


[1] This also implies that changing the values in a culture can easily lead to a break or split of the group. We see that often at political parties or at religious conflicts.