10 Steps Toward Changing Your Organizational Culture

I always thought people loved to lead and/or experience change in their organizational culture as much as I did. After working with people in great organizations, I learned that is simply not true. Perhaps you love change too or you are on the other side of the fence and avoid change at all costs.

If you lead anyone, paid staff or volunteer, you will make cultural changes in order to achieve the mission. For some, change is in their DNA. For others, change is a slow process or something refused altogether. There is a lot we can talk about on the subject, but for the sake of time, let's answer four questions and then explore ten best practices to making cultural shifts regardless of where you lead.

To contextually begin, let's answer four questions:

What is culture?

Culture is the shared attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of a particular social group.

How can culture change?

Culture changes when people think differently about the organization and experience altering habitual behaviors.

What is one way cultural change will not work?

If force is your tool of choice to lead change, you better be prepared to fight a lot and to lose often.

How can a leader better understand their organization's culture?

Conduct a culture audit: Try to use non-biased eyes. Use key questions with specific team members to better understand the culture and their perception of it. Spend time walking around and making observations.

As you explore the cultural landscape of your organization or even in a particular department or ministry area, you might think in terms of what you, the leader, want to accomplish and unintentionally discount the emotional impact on others. Missing out on this one very crucial element can kill what we are wanting to achieve and create more work and wounded relationships.

I have made a number of changes within my organization. Some of these changes went almost undetected, some changes were a breath of fresh air, and then there were a few changes that cost me almost more than I could afford to pay. 

As a leader who wants to influence the cultural direction of your organization, Dr. Roger Parrott says you are trusted to: 

1. Work within your inherited culture for a while: Most people don't want to change regardless of how old a process/system might seem. Spending time changing elements too soon could be perceived as an attack on values. Don't start change on day one.

2. Look to the longview: Think in terms of process and not overnight. Avoid making people feel threatened, by taking time, choosing small steps, and do both with intention. Think of what you want to see in the years to come and spend time depositing seeds that in time will grow into your preferred culture.

3. Demonstrate agreement of values: We will find differences between us and our area of responsibility. If we are assured of what we share in common, then we are more willing to respect our differences. 

4. Honor traditions and symbols: If you choose to ignore the unique treasures already embedded in an specific area, you will not be successful. This can include language, how meetings are led all the way to theological symbols.

5. Model what you expect and don't tolerate what you won't: Leaders will get back the behavior they model. Change begins with modeling, but it becomes ingrained through what the leader will not tolerate. Culture is not created by declaration; it derives from expectations focused on winning.

6. Celebrate success: If you celebrate too often, then success becomes trivialized. But if you rarely celebrate, then people and success feels unappreciated. Choose to celebrate someone and something specific in a manner that matches the person and the success.

7. Explain anticipated cultural changes: Understand many people struggle with change, especially if it directly impacts their way of working and living. Create enough lead time to explain the why and what of change. Choose a communication platform that is best for the team and the change.

8. Infuse a small team: As a leader, you cannot shift cultural change alone. Identify a small number of leaders who are highly effective and influential, secure in themselves, immersed in the vision, and unwavering in their commitment to sustain the culture shift long term. These can be your "game changing" team members.

9. Visit models of your cultural objective: Organizational cultural change is primarily about execution rather than being rooted in theoretical. As you anticipate change, identify other churches and organizations that you can study to learn what has worked and what has not. You can then apply to your context.

10. Purposefully pause: There can only be so much change at one time. In other words, there are limits. Be aware that for some they need to absorb changes even if you are ready to move forward with more change. Look for natural pauses that can actually provide breathing room for people to internalize what has happened fo far.

Researchers at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management have created a helpful Culture Roadmap. Professor of applied behavioral science, Mark Mallinger, provides a free resource including helpful questions to better recognize organizational culture in managing change.

What are you waiting for? Get going. The decisions you make today influence the organizational shift. After all, cultural change needs your intentional time and energy.