Leadership Matters
Pin It

by Phil Wilson, CHRP, SHRP


The average organizational culture change takes five to seven years to complete.

I was not surprised when I heard that fact recently at Dr. David Weiss’ presentation, Accelerating Culture Change, at HRPA’s 2014 Annual Conference in Toronto, as I have led culture change initiatives a number of times during my career.


We have seen five incarnations of the Apple iPhone in that amount of time. How can a company develop and bring to market multiple generations of product in less time than it takes to turn its culture around?


According to Weiss, CEO of Weiss International Ltd., an HR consultancy specializing in strategy, innovation and leadership, and the author of six books, including Leadership-Driven HR, the main reason is anxiety. Culture, he says, develops to create group stability, and challenges to basic cultural assumptions releases anxiety and defense mechanisms to preserve the culture.


That’s basically the idea behind Peter Drucker’s famous line, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The pronouncement of a new strategy involving culture change is quickly overwhelmed by the group’s desire to avoid anxiety and instability.

The trick to culture change is to avoid scaring the wits out of your people. 

Easing the change
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Done right, an effective culture change reinforces a little of the old, introduces a few new elements – and is modeled and championed whole-heartedly by senior management.


First off, you don’t change culture for culture’s sake – there has to be a compelling reason. You need to pinpoint what the organization requires from its culture in order to achieve the business outcomes you want.


“You want to take a laser beam approach to culture change,” said Weiss. “Many people err in thinking that when you change culture, you need to change the ENTIRE culture. The preferred approach is to reinforce two or three aspects of your current culture that are consistent with what is needed to deliver the business strategy, and modify two or three aspects of the current culture that are inconsistent with what is needed to deliver the business strategy. The laser beam approach targets these elements to reinforce and modify, thereby both validating and adjusting the group’s perception of what’s really important for the new strategy.”


By celebrating elements from your current culture you want to retain and reinforce, you’re actually reducing anxiety and defensiveness.

And for the targeted elements you want to modify, it’s important to emphasize that you’re not modifying them because they’re bad, you’re doing it because they are inconsistent in whole or in part with the organization’s new direction.


A culture change initiative that I was responsible for focused on a values-based approach in changing culture over a three- to five-year period. It resulted in inculcating four values: teamwork, trust, integrity and accountability. The role of the human resources team was critical as almost all the employee touch points from hiring to retirement are utilized through its processes and tools. For example, hiring competencies needed to reflect the new values, and performance measures needed to be aligned with the new culture that was being driven by the senior management team. The trick to culture change is to avoid scaring the wits out of your people. Nobody likes big change, so we pick a few areas to focus on that give us the greatest leverage by reinforcing a couple of things and modifying a few others.


And then, of course, you need your executive to model the change. Once people see that, they start believing the change is real – and that’s a highly leveragable culture change visual and helps people adopt a different way of working.


Phil Wilson, CHRP, SHRP is chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).

Pin It