A Force to be Reckoned With

The unseen force your organization’s culture puts on your transformation is often the insidious assassin that ultimately cuts its throat.

Dramatic? Maybe. But, in the decades that I have been helping leaders deploy significant change in their organizations, culture always seems to be the challenge that is either overlooked or grossly underestimated. It is always amusing to me when I hear leaders proclaim with full bravado that their company is “going agile,” or “putting the customer first,” or “executing with operational excellence.” As if they can just move their organizational behavior by declaration. That’s not the way it works. The United States did not obtain freedom from England in 1776 by just declaring independence (although it was a good start). It took a little more effort on our part (i.e., The Revolutionary War) before we could actually claim independence.

Similarly, your culture will not shift just because you order it. And, there’s little chance any transformation will succeed without addressing the organization’s culture. To effectively lead a transformation, you must recognize and respect the full force of your organization’s culture and meet these challenges head-on.

Can You Believe This?

Your organization’s culture exists, whether you realize it or not. In fact, most leaders have an inaccurate perception of their organization’s culture. They firmly embrace and believe in the corporate platitudes their leadership teams develop and evangelize with the assumption the rest of the organization is on board. That is usually not the case, which is why they are perplexed when some evidence comes their way that their organization is behaving “badly.” Then, they hire a consultant like me to break the news to them that not everybody is singing out of their songbook. It happens all the time.

Culture is a tricky thing to understand unless you have a background in organizational behavior. Regardless of what your company brochure says, your culture manifested by way of organizational adaptation. According to Edgar Schein, a well-respected authority on culture and former professor of Organizational Psychology and Management at MIT, culture is a collective set of convictions around how to survive, given both external (i.e., strategic) and internal (i.e., leadership and interpersonal dynamics) challenges. Much like we see in nature, people in any organization collectively respond to challenging situations and circumstances, and over time, learn what works and what doesn’t. In some cases, these learnings are in spite of top “leadership,” not as a result of it.

Sorry for the harsh reality if you are learning this for the first time, but it is vitally important to be in touch with the truth about your culture before you embark on a transformational change that will inevitably require a culture shift. Let’s consider its impact on the other areas that are classically defined under organizational design (OD): strategy, structure, processes and lateral capability, and rewards. A shift in strategy means the organization will be presented with a new set of external (strategic) challenges that it must adapt to. The way it has currently learned to adapt to strategic challenges no longer applies, so it will be forced to learn a new way of external adaptation. A shift in structure (i.e., reporting relationships), processes, or lateral capability (e.g., teams, dotted-line relationships, etc.) will likely disrupt the way it has adapted to internal challenges (e.g., informal leadership and power, group boundaries, relationship rules, etc.). Much like a strategic shift, the organization will be forced to learn a new way of internal adaption. Then there are rewards, which deserves a little more focus for this discussion, so we will talk about them next.

First Do, Then Learn

Leaders often confuse organizational behavior and culture, so let’s spend a minute clarifying the relationship. As noted in the previous section, culture is a shared set of convictions or beliefs. That’s fine for academic discussion, but in the real world, beliefs are difficult to manage. As a behaviorist, I need something more tangible than a belief to operate with, so my fundamental approach relies on observed behavior. In fact, applied behavior science is all about identifying what good behavior looks like, observing the current behavior, and then managing the gap using consequences. In general, people behave a certain way based on their experience after behaving that way in the past (i.e., their consequence). If they had a positive experience, they will probably do that behavior again. If they had a negative experience, they probably won’t. So, culture is organizational behavior, but only when people believe their behavior is the right way to meet their external and internal challenges.

Behavior change management is an important first step in establishing a culture, but it isn’t until the organization has learned that this behavior is the solution to their challenges, that the organization has adopted a healthy culture. This is what I often refer to as normalized behaviors. It is an important milestone for the organization, because the risk of recidivism is marginal at this point. Unfortunately, organizations don’t normalize to a culture overnight. For most large organizations, it takes years of active behavior management to establish a new culture, with no guarantees that it will ever be obtained. This should not preclude you from taking action, though. Your culture works like your white blood cells. If your change is perceived as a foreign body, your culture will protect itself by driving your change out of the organization. You must help the organization learn that your desired behaviors will support the company’s new direction (e.g., strategy, processes, etc.). To do that, you must deploy a full-consequence model. Consequences are the secret to getting people, and collectively your organization, to behave the way you want.

Consequences could be rewards for good behavior. In fact, rewards are called out as one of five critical elements in classic OD. Positive reinforcement (i.e., rewards), like bonuses and salary increases, is a very popular and effective way to motivate people to behave a certain way. But it tends to dominate the popular thinking, overshadowing the importance of other consequence types. Negative consequences should also be (carefully) considered when developing your strategy for managing behaviors, especially when dealing with transformational change. If you anticipate or encounter strong initial resistance, you will need to pull out the stick — carrots won’t do you any good. It may sting at first, but if you have designed your transformation correctly, your people will eventually learn that your desired behaviors are the right thing to do. That’s called building a culture.

The way to succeed is to intentionally shift your organization’s behaviors as you deploy the other elements of your transformation.


Organizations do not behave badly. They behave in a way that they feel ensures their survival. Transformational change, by definition, will disrupt your organization’s culture, so you must be very intentional on how it is dealt with. If you are not careful, your culture will make sure your change never goes live. The way to succeed is to intentionally shift your organization’s behaviors as you deploy the other elements of your transformation. This is not as easy as it sounds, but it starts by respecting the force your culture has against your change. Then work with change experts to design a strategy, and plans for bringing your people and your culture along with the journey of the transformation. It would be a shame for you to go through all that effort to develop a new strategy, organizational structure, workflows, and/or reward system, only for your culture to reject it. Take care of it now, or it will take care of you.