How To Change Workplace Culture For A Thriving Talent And Business Organisation

The Major Challenge of Culture Change. The idea of changing workplace culture may sound simple to someone who’s never been faced with the task before. But as anyone with experience knows, it’s a massive challenge.

In a 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review, authors Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley referenced a case study involving the health insurance giant Aetna and the struggles it endured throughout the early 2000s. Losing roughly $1 million a day, company executives realised they had a major problem on their hands—and it started with poor workplace culture. Understanding this, they decided it was time to make some very fundamental changes.

What they didn’t realise was that you can’t trade in an existing culture like it’s a used car.

“Unfortunately, it can feel like a millstone when a company is trying to push through a significant change—a merger, for instance, or a turnaround,” the Harvard Business Review article reads. “Cultural inclinations are well entrenched, for good or bad. But it’s possible to draw on the positive aspects of culture, turning them to your advantage and offset some of the negative aspects as you go. This approach makes change far easier to implement.”

Ultimately, Aetna was able to shift its’ corporate culture and save the day, but it took lots of time, persistence, and patience. While your business may not be losing millions of dollars every month, but there is a lot of unseen wastage, lost opportunities, opportunity cost and sub optimization happening; that when taken into account can be worth millions, which results from Cultural anomalies and poor engagement arising out of Corporate Politics and Dealings instead of sound Leadership and Culture.

Whether it’s widespread negativity, an overt disregard for company rules, or a lack of effort from employees, there are certain negative aspects of workplace culture that can destroy a business from the inside out. It’s your job to assess the problem, implement strategies to address the problem, and position your organisation for a recovery and discovery.

Tips for Creating Sustainable Culture Change

Understanding that each business, culture, and person is unique in their own way, here are a few tips for creating sustainable change in the workplace:

Consider the Individual.

While your goal is to change the culture of an entire business or entity, you have to narrow your focus to a much more granular level. It’s important to start with the individuals in the company and move from there. After all, if the people within an organisation don’t change, the company itself can never change.

It’s important to understand this from the start. If you know that change occurs on an individual basis, and that sustaining that change is the key to long-term success, you’ll be able to develop a much better strategy.

Make the Right Hiring and Firing Decisions.

The biggest key to changing culture is eliminating toxic employees and infusing the business with the right talent. Unfortunately, this is also the hardest thing to do. Your first step is to sit down with existing employees and determine who has to be fired, retired, or “RE-FIRED”. Red flags that someone isn’t right for your new culture include laziness, unwillingness to change, failure to own up to mistakes, and an inability to accept constructive critique.

However, if you’re going to let employees go, you have to be sure that you can find better replacements that align with your corporate values and culture.

Set Short-Term Goals.

Focus on implementing short-term goals if you want to see steady, consistent change. Gather your leadership team and develop a list of specific, tangible changes you want to see in the workplace culture.

This includes what to do and what not to do.

 Examples include showing up on time, having lower-level employees seek out more responsibilities, fostering creativity, etc.

Establish new Norms and Standards of Behaviour. Companies have work process SOP’s but very few have Behavioural SOP’s. Behavioural SOPS are the keys to Organisation Development and Culture Change.

o          There is always a better way, our challenge is to find

o          If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask.  We don’t have to know everything

o          Even if what you say is correct, it may be incomplete, therefore seek to see the others point of view first

o          Put yourself into the other person’s shoes when listening

o          Listen to understand instead of to defend

o          Its Ok to say I don’t know

o          We allow ourselves to be vulnerable

o          Always challenge current ways of doing things

o          What is good today may be not relevant tomorrow

o          Always ask questions and Observe – After asking, practice “O.W.L ing” “Observe – Wait – Listen”. Don’t be too quick to form judgements

o          We can be wrong sometimes

o          Don’t be defensive

o          If you feel others are not aware –please inform. If you don’t, please ask.

o          Conflict is not necessarily bad but can be good if we can seek new ways of doing things

o          You can make assumptions-but please validate and check if it’s true or just an Opinion and Perception

o          Balance fact with tack

o          Listen to what each other is not saying.

o          Give feedback to each other constructively and lovingly

o          Feedback is the basis for change

o          When communicating, we are sharing perceptions. No one has got full picture, but sharing helps us find the missing puzzles

o          Let the people affected be involved in decision making

o          Teach a person to fish instead of giving him/her a fish

These can serve as a feedback list or mirror to reflect how we are doing on a regular basis. Together with this set short term chewable goals for change or pilot it with certain departments or sections and gain momentum, success and credibility and then extend it to the others.

Then you can begin to develop specific timetables for attacking these goals and attaching high priority to make these happen. Instead of trying to juggle multiple changes at once, take them one at a time. Start by developing new rules that encourage punctuality. Once that’s no longer an issue, focus on motivating lower-level employees. Once that ball is rolling, think about how you can encourage across-the-board creativity and innovation. As you’ll see, these short-term goals build on each other and ultimately push your organisation to long-term, sustainable change.

Give Employees a Chance to be Heard.

Sit down and discuss the culture of the workplace with each individual in the organisation. Ask them what they’d change, what they like, and what they feel like is holding them back from accomplishing more. Not only does this listening exercise show employees that you care about them, but it also gives you valuable insights into what’s happening on the ground level.

Follow Through with Promises (Good and Bad).

Creating sustainable behavioural change means you’ll have to set boundaries and make promises. For example, if the tardiness of your employees is a serious problem, you may threaten to dock pay for every minute an employee is late. If you threaten to do this, you have to follow through.

Or you may choose positive reinforcement in which you promise to reward employees with an extra day off for every 20-consecutive day they arrive early. Whether it’s negative or positive reinforcement, you must be prepared to follow through with the promises you make.

Building a growth culture, requires a blend of individual and organisational components.

The following are essential:


An environment that feels safe, fuelled first by top by leaders willing to role model vulnerability and take personal responsibility for their shortcomings and missteps.

Learning and Curiosity.

A focus on continuous learning through inquiry, curiosity, and transparency, in place of judgment, certainty and self-protection.

Testing & Prototyping Desired Behaviours.

Timely, manageable experiments with new behaviours in order to test our unconscious assumptions- that changing the status quo is dangerous and likely to have negative consequences.

Continuous feedback.

Continuous feedback — up, down and across the organisation – grounded in a shared commitment to helping each other grow and get better instead of bitter.

Focus on the Long-Term Goals.

Creating sustainable change in a company that’s entrenched in its ways is no small feat. In fact, it’s an astronomical challenge. However, it can be done. Just take the case of Aetna as an example. Give the leadership team credit for identifying the problems and addressing them head-on. It took time, but Aetna eventually returned to its former glory and is once again viewed as a healthy and profitable company.

These five tips are a quick start to culture change you can do immediately while working on the bigger picture of change.

Just remember to focus on the individual, not the process. Real change starts with people. Hire the right ones, fire the bad ones, and encourage everyone from the secretary to the CEO to work for big picture goals.

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