Culture – What It Is, and How to Change It

Published by Mark Zerbach on

Leadership Article Series



Corporate or organizational culture refers to the collective attitudes, beliefs, and codes that prevail on all levels of a company. A culture is generated by individuals and their interactions with each other, as well as by the basic goals, orientation, and context of the business. A culture doesn’t only exist on the inside of an organization; it’s also perceived by customers and competitors from the outside. Whether the culture is intentional and deliberate or not, each company has one. As a leader, you have to determine whether the culture of your company is a good fit for how your want the company to operate.

Key Terms

  • Culture: how people in a specific group choose to do things
  • Corporate/organizational culture: norms for how things are done in a business
    Environment: the perception of a workplace, as dictated by its culture


The world of business pits companies against each other in the quest to win customers. Since modern resources and technology make it so no company has a monopoly on any service, culture becomes the most competitive element in any business. Your corporate culture can also help you attract the type and quality of people you’d like to hire.

Culture is a term that’s used in many fields, but it has a unique meaning in a corporate context. Corporate — or organizational — culture is essentially the personality of a particular group. Culture is comprised of internal assumptions, values, and norms, as well as the external behaviors of members of the organization. You can observe the culture of an organization by watching the interactions between co-workers, how people handle stress, how they treat each other and customers, what they prioritize, and how they’re spoken of by those outside the organization. Culture is a concept that’s difficult to convey, but everyone understands it when they see it. Members of an organization quickly come to sense and understand its culture.

The first step in making a change in your company’s culture is to identify what the existing culture is. The culture of many companies is determined by those in upper leadership positions. They set expectations for performance or for how employees interact with others both by instituting norms and by the example they set. Other inputs to a company’s culture are feedback from society, laws, regulations, history, competition, and the value placed on the services they provide.

Once you’ve fully identified your company’s culture, you’re in a position to change it, provided it merits a change. However, culture is a very hard thing to transform because people, in general, resist change. It’s also difficult because culture is an entire collection of interactions and beliefs. If you, as a leader, want to improve the existing environment at your workplace and newly establish what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, you have to address the culture.

Another important step in changing culture is to decide what you want the new culture to be. Here are some questions to ask as you consider that decision:

  • What sorts of behaviors do you want to see every day?
  • How will those behaviors make the company successful?
  • Will those behaviors be intentional or fluctuate with people’s moods?
  • Does the culture inspire people or beat them down?
  • How much time do you have each day to devote to a cultural change?
  • What systems do you have in place to create this change?
  • Will your behaviors fit into the new culture?

At the core of culture change are the people that make up the company. If you want to change culture, you must change people. If you want your people to change, you need to connect with and inspire them. That is where leadership comes into play. In your efforts to change culture, you may put into place policies, processes, and procedures, but the culture will not change unless the people do.

Consider the analogy of a composite product that uses threads inside an epoxy resin. The string is easy to manipulate and is very customizable. However, it’s the resin that gives the material shape and purpose. Without the resin, the threads have no structure, no direction, and little function. Leaders may hire the very best people to work as strings, but without the resin of culture, those employees will work with no structure and no direction.

The principles in John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, are well-adapted to creating change in a culture through its people. Here are the key steps he outlines:

  • Establish a sense of urgency
  • Create a Guiding Coalition
  • Develop a vision and strategy
  • Communicate the change vision
  • Empower broad-based action
  • Generate short-term wins
  • Consolidate gains and produce more change
  • Anchor new approaches

Knowing how to change a culture is particularly important when attempting to manage organization-wide change. Modern corporations are coming to realize that, despite the best-laid plans, organizational changes must include changing not only structure and processes, but also culture. A corporate culture serves to govern people and their thoughts so that their behaviors and outcomes can be predictable and satisfactory to the company.

Real-world example
In 1999, I went to work for a leader after reading a story he had written that portrayed an extraordinary picture of what his organization could become. It was my first exposure to a vision story. It motivated me enough that I transferred over to his group specifically to help make that vision a reality. I joined the team assigned to work on the vision, and we got started. At the time, we didn’t understand the role that a culture plays or how hard it is to change one. What a wake-up call! We had to read books about it as it wasn’t a common subject back then.

We made a few attempts at changing the culture, but didn’t have any real success until we adopted the eight steps that Kotter lays out in his book, Leading Change. Changing a culture is not something that happens unless you’re intentional about it, and unless you understand how to monitor the momentum and tension in an organization. Once you understand where that balance is, you then need to learn how to ensure that the momentum moves in the right direction.

We ended up forming a couple of teams. The first one was the Guiding Coalition, whose function was to monitor the momentum and tension. Their task was to anticipate and react to issues in order to help keep our teams moving forward. The second team was the Steering Team. Its function was to prioritize all the activities within the organization to harmonize with the new vision. They then matched the right resources to those activities and monitored the teams to ensure they were successful.

We also created a monthly communication letter that shared company successes and activities. We had picked milestones and when the teams hit them, we celebrated. We were out walking the floor every day, connecting to people and eliminating issues that would hinder them from getting on board. We also had to move some people out of the organization who, for whatever reason, wouldn’t buy in and were trying to distract others from our progress.

A vision statement is hard to develop, but after a few weeks or months you will begin to see changes. But changing your culture is a continual, daily process, and it goes on for years. My recommendation is to thoroughly understand what you want, to figure out how to make that change, and be very intentional and disciplined in approaching the process of change. The good news is, changing company culture is a common practice in today’s world, and there are a lot of resources available to help you do it.

Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press, 2012.