Changing Organizational Culture: 5 Ways to Effect Lasting Culture Change in Your Workplace

Changing organizational culture can seem like a battle, like a trudge up an enormous hill with seemingly no end, especially when you’re not sure where to begin.

This image of a compass in the hand of a person navigating a desert reflects the difficulty of changing organizational culture without a clear strategy — if you don't know where you're heading, you'll struggle to even know which way to go.

Most HR folks who are trying to figure exactly how to change company culture in a meaningful, lasting way, struggle to come up with a clear method that is sustainable long-term.

The stark reality is that organizational culture is complex web of relationships, and as those relationships change and shift over time, work must be put in by employees, management, and HR alike to maintain any positive change that has been affected and continue along a productive path.

Changing Organizational Culture — It’s Possible With the Right Focus

But it’s not all doom and gloom! Changing organizational culture in such a way as to create long-lasting improvements does happen, and happen regularly, in organizations of all shapes and sizes.

And even when challenges rear their ugly heads and damage your hard work, there are five simple principles that, once implemented in your organization, can help your business to weather the storm (and come out stronger).

In this article, we’re going to briefly cover each of those five principles — in the rest of the series, we’re going to dive deep into one principle at a time to explain more thoroughly what implementation of that principle does for an organization, how it helps effect culture change in the workplace, and then give examples of what that looks like in practice.

Like all relationships, the foundation of true change to organizational culture starts with trust.

Changing Organizational Culture by Building Trust

Trust is one of the most foundational aspects of human relationships. Culture change in the workplace just isn’t going to happen without it.

Everything flows from trust, and when we think about foundational moments in our lives at work, we often see that trust (or a lack thereof) is critical.

Consider, for example, taking on a leadership role. For many, this is a large jump in one’s career, the chance to move into management, to prove oneself to the larger organization.

We see trust everywhere in such a situation — your boss needs to trust you to get the job done and treat those you’ll lead well. The people you’ve been made responsible for need to trust you to lead them — you have to trust them to do their job and do it well.

An organization that’s filled with mistrust is going to fail to achieve results. Workers who fear retribution and don’t trust their bosses aren’t going to admit failure (or that they’re becoming burned out).

Bosses who don’t trust their employees are never going to be able to build a large organization where they have no choice but to trust someone else to lead entire departments. Before other problems can be addressed in an organization, trust must be established to lay the foundation for success.

Changing Organizational Culture by Mastering Conflict

Conflict is a part of all relationships — when conflict is healthy, respectful, and productive, it leads to positive change. When conflict is unhealthy, disrespectful, and mean, it ruins relationships.

What’s often worse is when conflict is suppressed, when parties have grievances and differences of opinion that are not being addressed or shared.

Conflict cannot be suppressed forever, and when an organization doesn’t have a healthy way of addressing such simmering conflicts quickly, decisively, and positively, relationships erode (or disappear in the huge explosions that take place when the conflict can no longer be suppressed).

Explosions aren’t always the result of suppressed conflict — depending on your personality style, it may be the case that conflict is actively avoided and stays suppressed… until you just give up and find another job.

In both cases, the organization suffers, because differences in ideas are not explored, differences in personality are not alleviated, and negative feelings build up, turn into resentment, and distract from the mission (when they don’t send productive-yet-dissatisfied employees running into the arms of the competition).

Changing company culture is difficult, but an organization that trusts itself can master the art of healthy conflict, and an organization which does that can achieve something critical to reaching high levels of quality and productivity—commitment to decisions.

Changing Organizational Culture by Achieving Commitment

Achieving commitment doesn’t mean getting everyone to agree — it means getting everyone to understand what’s happening, why it’s happening (even if they’re against it), and to support the direction of the organization and the choices that are made whether they agree or not.

It’s a commitment to the organization itself, a commitment rooted in trust, a commitment that says “even if I think you’re wrong, I will work toward this goal because I trust my colleagues and the organization as a whole.”

When clarity is achieved, even when not everyone agrees, there is a goal to unite around, something which can, over time, build consensus. Everyone knows what to do and why so that the best possible results can be achieved.

Clear goals in an organization filled with trusting people who understand how to have healthy conflict is great, but when not everyone agrees (and when some people have performance or behavior issues), accountability is required to stay the course.

Changing Organizational Culture by Embracing Accountability

True accountability isn’t possible if your team members don’t trust each other. No one is going to feel the need to be accountable if they don’t believe they’ll be given a fair hearing, and they will actively hide shortcomings and issues to protect themselves and their paycheck.

Similarly, accountability isn’t possible if an organization has no clue how to resolve conflict in a healthy way.

If you know that conflict leads to people getting yelled at, snubbed, or fired, you’re going to avoid it, and thus avoid any and all accountability — and accountability is critical to the proper functioning of an organization.

Changing organizational culture is a tough job as it is — it’s impossible if there’s no way to hold employees and management accountable for their actions, and further, to encourage them to hold themselves accountable when they’ve made mistakes. Without accountability, trust erodes, goals become fuzzy, and conflict becomes toxic.

With accountability, trust is solidified. Team members feel they can trust colleagues because they know they’ll be held accountable if they don’t perform or misbehave.

Everyone is willing to tell on themselves if they know they’ll be treated fairly and if they believe it will benefit the organization as a whole.

Management can thrive because they understand the rest of the C-suite is going to be held to the same standard they are, that the organization isn’t going to sink because a few people aren’t pulling their weight or are engaging in toxic behaviors.

With all the proper pieces in place, real results can be built.

Changing Organizational Culture by Focusing on Results

Ultimately, an organization changes, grows, and thrives by achieving real results.

Unfortunately, we’re all familiar with what happens when the vision becomes blurred and coworkers, teams, or even entire departments, lose that focus and stop worrying about the results the organization aims to achieve.

When employees are focused only on their own status and personal success, when teams only care if their team looks good every quarter (even at the expensive of the larger projects they’re working on), unhealthy conflict emerges, and results fall victim to petty infighting and office politics.

For all employees, teams, and departments to forgo personal status or reward when the results of the organization are on the line, for teams to be willing to support a goal even if it means they don’t get the largest reward or greatest recognition, requires a lot of trust and real buy-in.

Results are the most difficult thing for an organization to achieve, but also the most rewarding.

Change Is Painful — And Rewarding

Remember, changing organizational culture at any level is difficult, but the results are rewarding. There’s nothing quite like taking a toxic culture that’s damaging results and helping it heal.

In the coming weeks, we’ll talk about each of these principles individually and discuss examples of implementation. For now, consider that first principle — trust.

A team that trusts each other is a cohesive team, a team of engaged employees who support the organization and increase performance and productivity.

While you wait for the next post, read our free ebook on team cohesion to learn how one organization raised employee engagement by 33% in only a single year.

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Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.