Organizational culture is dynamic, it is constantly evolving and each culture has its own personality.  The dynamics of culture form patterns of behavior based on shared beliefs, values, assumptions, traditions and norms.  These patterns are contributed to by all employees, some drive the culture, some attempt counter-cultural activities and there are those who do not engage the culture at all.  By abstaining, their disengagement helps to perpetuate the prevailing patterns.

Cultural patterns can be destructive, constructive or a combination of both, creating a push, pull undercurrent.  From a push/ pull perspective, organizations can have practices that help it to achieve outstanding results but those same practices undermine morale and long-term sustainability of performance.

When changing cultural dynamics becomes a primary strategic priority, leaders can establish a vision for cultural change but if these persons only have the benefit of experience of a single organizational culture it will be difficult to orchestrate change because these leaders don’t know what they don’t know.

They have a view of the world that is limited to their experiences, so at best, they can take the vision they created for a new culture and filter it through a familiar paradigm and this has the effect of giving the impression of change because there are surface indicators of it but at the heart of the new activities, the old paradigm is still active.

When cultural change is your goal, a profound shift in mindset is necessary and most times, the architects of culture value the way things are being done because they were rewarded for their compliance. Albert Einstein once asserted, “No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.” And this is very true in the context of cultural evolution.

Therefore, when seeking to effect cultural transformation, change leaders can plan to address 3 potentially obstructive dynamics in order to create authentic change.

  • When change happens, persons revert to familiar habits. Familiar is equivalent to comfortable. For example, a manager may be a micromanager and the organization introduces a coaching platform. On the surface, the manager complies with the new policy and coaches her staff members, but the coaching sessions still feel like micromanagement and so persons being coached are not excited about what they thought would be an opportunity for career development.
  • In organizations where the value of trust is significantly underestimated. Trust tends to be a very important unifying factor that leads to team cohesion and so when cultural change is well planned, balanced, carefully implemented, monitored, and evaluated, trust is possible when trustworthy persons are leading.
  • When cultural change leaders are motivated to transform their work environments, there needs to be a clear understanding of current and desired behaviors, a vision for the future culture and accountability to the new ways of leading and interacting. Accountability to new behaviors is critical because the change leaders need to be able to discern when implementation is not deep enough and they need to have the courage to confront the old habits. The same ones they previously accepted and probably emulated. As I have already pointed out, it is difficult for persons to replicate behaviors they never witnessed or developed. Therefore, a change leader who has no ties to the existing culture and the relevant institutional memory may help to implement the change effectively. If external hires are a viable option, here are two alternatives:
    • Hire a consultant to who can help create a change plan and identify the infiltration of the previously accepted norms while implementing the cultural change plan. Because this person is capable of objectivity, he/she can identify when a superficial approach is being attempted and hold the team accountable to deeper implementation.
    • Replace existing executives with ones who are experienced with operating within the desired cultural framework. They should have the courage and stamina to stay the course as the organization moves through unproductive behaviors.

If new executive team members or external contractual support are not viable options, the mindset and competencies of the existing executive team and board of directors need to undergo transformation. This requires training and coaching the top tier comprised of executives and directors with the intent of shifting their mindsets so they can implement the cultural changes and authentically adopt the new paradigm, releasing the old one and its related programming.

Cultural change requires unification.  It necessitates a unified way of thinking, collaboration and cohesion of the team. This unity is strengthened through effective communication. Communication acts as a connective factor when a new paradigm is being introduced.  When trust is present, the quality of communication supports openness, sharing and respect.

The effectiveness of internal systems of communication is directly linked to the characteristics of your culture because when there is a lack of transparence combined with deliberate withholding of information, trust levels are usually low and the team’s ability to perform is impaired.

The quality of communication also plays a part in unifying the team.  In environments where there is truth and openness, this can build the team as long as persons are not hired who do not have the capacity to process truth in a constructive way.  Some persons cannot accept truth no matter how it is presented, others perceive it objectively because they are not defined by what others think of them. They seek the golden nuggets and discard the rest.

There are work environments where the daily use of language includes excessive use of profanity and this is accepted because everyone communicates in this way.  Those on the outside looking in, may view this dynamic as unprofessional or offensive because profanity in the workplace is a no-no to them.

Language is a visible aspect of culture and it is an important part of communication, it helps you understand what is valued and believed and it provides insight into the personality of the organization.  Depending on the personalities, beliefs and values of members of the team, the same language can have a divisive effect on one team or it can bring another team together.  It is all depends on the personality and mood of the organization.

Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner.  If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.