Changing Organizational Culture: Do You Do It Top Down or Ground Up?

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Aug 8, 2012

The importance of company culture continues to get more and more coverage in the press, in research studies, and an organizational implementation and resources.

This pleases me immensely, and yet I’m still concerned when I see articles like this one that focus on adding an executive-level position of culture chief. Done right, this can be a powerful role to marshal resources, but it also runs the risk of communicating a top-down approach to culture.

What works better? Bottom-up culture change aligned with organization strategy and goals as discussed in the Harvard Business Review in the article Culture Change that Sticks” by Jon R. Katzenback, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley.

Keys to long-lasting culture change

Using Aetna as a case study, the authors make clear these important aspects to long-lasting culture change and management over time:

  1. Culture change must be ground-up, not top-down.
  2. Enlist ambassadors for desired change from among respected, engaged employees at all levels and all areas of the organization to help get buy-in.
  3. Communicate clearly why you’re making the change and the new purpose of the changed culture (For more on why this is important, see this CIPD research showing a strong correlation between employee engagement and knowledge of the organization’s core purpose).
  4. Reinforce the behaviors (new and old) you need to see in the new culture.

Five more principles of effective change

Those were my high-level take-aways, which are well in line with the five (5) principles of effective culture change the authors outline themselves (key points and excerpts below are quoted):

  1. Match strategy and culture: A strategy that is at odds with a company’s culture is doomed. Culture trumps strategy every time.
  2. Focus on a few critical shifts in behaviors: When a few key behaviors are emphasized heavily, employees will often develop additional ways to reinforce them.
  3. Honor the strengths of your existing culture: Acknowledging the existing culture’s assets will also make major change feel less like a top-down imposition and more like a shared evolution.
  4. Integrate formal and informal interventions: As you promote critical new behaviors, making people aware of how they affect the company’s strategic performance, be sure to integrate formal approaches – like new rules, metrics, and incentives – with formal interactions.
  5. Measure and monitor cultural evolution: Rigorous measurement allows executives to identify backsliding, correct course where needed, and demonstrate tangible evidence of improvement – which can help to maintain positive momentum over the long haul.

What are your experiences with culture change? What would you add as critical for success?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.