How to Successfully Manage Culture Change in the Workplace (HR Professionals Weigh In)

March 11, 2019

Managing culture change in the workplace can be a daunting task.

This type of change presents a variety of challenges that must be addressed and overcome.

Learn what challenges HR experts have identified during this process and their recommendations for how you can overcome your company’s roadblocks to culture change in the workplace.

The Importance of Company Culture

The importance of fostering a great company culture can’t be overemphasized.

Companies that fail to place any measure of importance on their internal culture, or that allow toxic culture to grow and spread, are bound to experience a myriad of difficulties. Employment attorney Richard Celler knows all too well the cost of toxic company culture: “Harassment, bullying, employee rights violations, and other abuses flow downhill from a toxic company environment—and it costs employers millions in legal claims.”

The sad part is that many of these lawsuits could have been avoided if the need for culture change in the workplace had been addressed. Thankfully, toxic company culture is usually visible early on, and if the behaviors and attitudes associated with it are curbed in a timely manner, you can prevent a lot of problems down the road. As an employer or HR professional, it’s your responsibility to address these toxic behaviors.

What Is Cultural Change in an Organization?

An organization’s culture, or the beliefs and behaviors that influence how people act within that organization, is now believed to play a major role in a company’s success or failure. As such, more and more businesses are paying attention to the impact of their culture. This provides a unique leadership opportunity for HR professionals to determine how to implement cultural change in an organization.

Company culture is something that is felt more than measured. In essence, an organization’s culture is the shared perception of “how things are done.” This perception may or may not match stated policy, values, or mandates. Good HR departments have a pulse on how employees are feeling, and can therefore be on the front line for managing and influencing culture.

However, as businesses that struggle with their culture will tell you, organizational cultural management can be challenging. And it can be especially difficult when there’s the need for a change. In part, this is because an organization’s culture encompasses several components that intertwine and impact each other: values, goals, roles, processes, communications practices, and attitudes.

Changing a culture is a large-scale undertaking that takes careful strategy and planning. It holds the unique requirement of both starting at the top and also being an organization-wide process. But first, you must determine when a cultural change is necessary. Then you can decide how to influence culture change.

What Motivates a Shift in Organizations?

Many different circumstances can prompt organizations to recognize the need for a culture change in the workplace.

Perhaps your company has recently undergone significant growth, had changes in leadership, or wondered why many of your good employees are pursuing careers elsewhere. These signs (and others) indicate that it may be time to overhaul your company culture. According to the experts consulted, here are some of the most common reasons companies need to make a culture change in the workplace.

Employees

One motivation for culture change in the workplace is having problem employees.

Most employees can be relied on, but dealing with rebellious employees or employees that improperly take advantage of company policies may require clarification of regulations and a cultural shift.

Allowing a few troublesome employees to keep their bad habits may seem harmless in the beginning, but their attitude can quickly rub off on other employees and encourage poor behavior all around.

The right culture can be a remedy.

Julie from 4Good Consulting believes that “culture is contagious” and a company culture that fosters a proactive, optimistic, problem-solving attitude will rub off on employees and create a positive environment.

Growth

As companies grow, they often see the need to make cultural changes in the workplace. For example, flexible work schedules might work for smaller companies, but as they grow, more structure and procedures may be needed to help ensure reliable staffing. Also, when companies grow, there’s usually less visibility of the CEO, which reduces the CEO’s direct impact on the culture of the company.

Company growth can also lead to the development of subcultures and more opportunities for toxic culture to fester unnoticed among a small number of troublesome employees. More regulations may also apply to your growing company, and your governance model may need to change to support the growth. However, there are positives as well, as a growing company brings in new people with different perspectives that can help your company. New leaders may also recognize a toxic work culture and launch a critical culture change in the workplace.

Performance

Many companies look to hire high performers and overlook the fact that they might already have a willing and ready workforce right in their own office.

Before searching for outside talent, take a look at your company culture and determine whether it encourages your employees’ growth, innovation, and enthusiasm for their work. General marketer Jon, from Authority Hacker, believes that changing your culture can help you find ways to better train your staff and give them the “tools they need… to continually grow in the business.”

Loss of Employees

Employees quit from time to time, but if too many are leaving and you don’t know why you should re-examine your company culture and see if it is the root of the problem.

Workplace culture expert Shane Green knows that “younger workers are not afraid to leave jobs or managers for a better situation. If a company wants to retain its best and brightest, then they need to deliver a good to great employee experience.”

Mergers and Acquisitions

When it comes to causing a culture change in the workplace, Senior Consultant Beth Browde from Mercer knows “culture is a huge issue in merger integrations.”

When companies merge and leadership changes, the company dynamic often changes as well. Successful mergers and leadership changes rely on the successful integration of company culture.

Crisis

Sometimes the motivation for creating a culture change in the workplace isn’t a positive one.

Major problems with customer complaints, employees, management, etc., can result in legal issues, company losses, and more. Times like these may cause owners and HR professionals alike to consider whether a change in company culture is in order to avoid these problems in the future.

Whatever your motivation is for making a culture change in the workplace, creating a good company culture has a myriad of benefits including:

    • Increased job satisfaction
    • Less stress
    • Better performance
    • Employee retention
    • And more.

Establishing a strong, successful company culture is vital to the long-term success of any organization.

How Do You Change Bad Company Culture?

It should be no surprise that your culture can either be your greatest strength or your most damaging weakness. Watch for the warning signs that a company’s culture is broken. Red flags include:

  • No defined core values
  • Managers don’t follow the core values
  • A high rate of turnover
  • A bad company reputation
  • Employees are often tardy or absent
  • A large amount of office gossip
  • Glaring inconsistencies between what people say and do
  • Unfriendly competition between employees
  • Employees aren’t adequately acknowledged or rewarded
  • Employees who don’t take lunch breaks, or regularly work nights and/or weekends

Once you recognize negative or toxic culture trends, it’s time to make a change. This does not mean some group decides what the new culture should be and then simply dictates a list of values to the company. With this approach, little to nothing changes.

Instead, it’s important to identify and address the underlying issues so you can correct your course. These four steps are a good place to start to set your organization back on the right track:

  1. Foster an environment of accountability, from managers down to individual employees.
  2. Discuss with teams what matters most to them.
  3. Institute better practices based on feedback.
  4. Continue to assess your culture.

Challenges to Managing Culture Change in the Workplace

Employers face many challenges in managing culture change in the workplace. Here, experts weigh in on what the main challenges are.

1. Resistance to Change

Heidi Lynne Kurter, founder and CEO of Heidi Lynne Consulting says, “The greatest challenge I see when attempting to change company culture is the resistance to change.” Employees don’t like to see changes in the workplace, and some are more resistant to changes than others.

Employees who sow negativity at the ground level can be especially damaging to new cultural initiatives. Matthew Ross, co-owner and COO of RIZKNOWS and The Slumber Yard, notes that these people “tend to speak out against management and rally other employees behind certain ideas and concepts.” In these cases, it’s critical to explain why the changes are important as well as what the benefits are.

Even after changes are made, Jim Robertson, CEO of The Alternative Board Woodlands observes, “Employees may revert back to what they’re used to rather than push forward with the new.”

Resistance to change doesn’t always look like outright rebellion. HR Manager Alex Robinson at Team Building Hero has observed, “With the older employees, the challenge is quiet dissent, [and] drops in productivity and job satisfaction,” which can be just as detrimental to your business. Successful culture change relies on including your employees in the transition and getting their feedback.

2. Lack of Motivation to Change

Getting employees and executives on board for making a culture change in the workplace can be very challenging.

Alex Robinson, HR manager at Team Building Hero, says, ”The best way to motivate employees to accept our culture is first to get their buy-in, and second to choose principles and values that are indisputable.” You can do this by making sure the principles on which your organization focuses make sense to your employees and have their support. However, getting employee buy-in is only part of the challenge.

Getting the motivation and buy-in of your executives is also critical and can be even more difficult than convincing employees if they don’t see the need to spend additional time and resources on changing the workplace culture. But executive buy-in is important because culture trickles down from the top. If the executive team isn’t willing to make changes, your company will struggle.


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3. Lack of Ownership

Changing company culture is the responsibility of everyone, not just the HR department.

Julie from 4Good Consulting knows that “not everyone feels responsible to change culture or believes they have the ability to impact it.” Telling people what changes you want to make and trying out different initiatives with teams allows you to get feedback and lets employees know they are a vital part of the process.

4. Complacency

People don’t like to upset the status quo. Joshua M. Evans from Culture Consulting Associates says, “People have grown so used to ‘the way things are’ that they will fight anything new, even if it’s better, just to keep what’s familiar.” Setting clear cultural expectations helps overcome complacency, and Evans believes it’s important “to communicate and reinforce the new cultural expectations continually.”

5. Capped Potential

Some companies realize the need for culture change in the workplace when they face the challenge of capped employee potential. Allocating your budget and time towards providing training and resources to upskill your employees and creating a company culture of learning and growth can help you overcome this challenge.

Solutions for Managing Culture Change in the Workplace

The challenges of managing culture change in the workplace may be daunting, but there are solutions that can make it easier while helping you to keep your sanity during major changes. Here are the top recommendations from HR experts.

1. Collaborate

Make employees part of creating the company culture.

Heidi Lynne Kurter, founder and CEO of Heidi Lynne Consulting, says, “When it comes to culture change, collaboration is key. Your employees make up your culture, and neglecting to include them in the process only creates more strain in the already distant relationship. Culture isn’t a one-sided process. It’s made up of everyone within the organization.” Listen to and apply the feedback and ideas your employees give you.

To help ensure collaboration with your employees, be transparent and authentic from the start. You should also try to understand the feelings of your employees by holding one-on-one meetings and group meetings where you can openly discuss concerns and overcome barriers.

2. Don’t Let Anything Slide

Matthew also recognizes the importance of staying consistent. “I think it’s important that once you institute the new policies or rules, you stick by them from day one,” he says. “Don’t let anything slide, no matter how small or big it is.”

Once you’ve implemented changes, follow up consistently. Jon from Authority Hacker says, ”I believe consistent and frequent follow-up is one of the most important things any management team or business can do to help embed new behaviors.”

Most employees will support a culture change in the workplace, but what if you encounter one who doesn’t? Matthew also recommends, ”If you see an employee acting in a manner that goes against the new company culture you’re trying to cultivate, take action immediately and let it be known that it will not be tolerated. If you start letting things slide here and there, the employees won’t take the new changes or policies very seriously.”

3. Communication

Don’t rely on one company-wide email to give your employees the heads-up on culture changes you plan to make in the workplace. Alex Robinson from Team Building Hero recommends you ”plan a meeting or multiple meetings before making any changes where you can get employee contribution and buy-in.” His company planned scheduled changes and communicated the entire process to their employees so that “when we did change the policy, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone.”

The key takeaway here is that changes shouldn’t come as a surprise. Communicating with your staff about what values they feel are important, the changes you are planning, and how you will implement them reduces resistance to change. North America Managing Director for ThirtyThree Nicole Dorskind asserts, “The overarching vision for the change should be communicated in a clear and consistent way on an ongoing basis.”

Team in a boardroom deciding on the HR Vision statement

4. Make Gradual Changes

Culture change in the workplace should be a gradual process.

Instead of a quick succession of messages or meetings, give employees time to adjust to the idea of change.

It might take weeks or even months to make the changes you want, but it will be easier for your employees. Managing Director of Healing Holidays Frances Geoghegan notes that “the last thing you want to do is scare them away by having them walk into a brand-new workplace the very next day.”

Adjusting to a new work environment and culture is hard. Frances also says, “The best advice I can give to overcome this is to not implement all changes straight away. Begin phasing in the changes slowly; this will give your team members plenty of time to adjust and adapt to the new culture comfortably.” Implementing changes slowly will help you face less resistance and help your employees feel happier about the change.

5. Gamification

Other companies have found success in managing culture change in the workplace by implementing gamification—using fun and games to encourage understanding, participation, and support.

Cristian Rennella, CEO and Cofounder of oMelhorTrato.com tried this strategy in his company with successful results. “To reduce employee resistance to change, we create games and the winners receive their corresponding prizes. We implement rules, points, scoreboards, etc. In this way, thanks to gamification, we were able to improve the adoption speed of our new culture without disrupting workflow by 26.3 percent.”

6. Make People Happier at Work

Sometimes other changes, such as a change of location, might prompt the need for a culture change in the workplace.

Change of any kind is difficult. HR Manager of Maple Holistics Nate Masterson found that moving into an unfinished office space with unpainted walls and folding tables for desks wasn’t doing any favors for employee morale.

Nate says, “In order to bring back some energy and make people happier at work, we tried to infuse some pizzazz even as renovations were being completed. We added exercise balls as alternatives to chairs in order to make work a bit more entertaining.” Simple changes like this, along with an offering of “daily snacks to perk people up a bit,” helped employees stay happy and positive during a time of change.

7. Start with a Clear Vision

Before you start making changes, define what you want to achieve and recognize whether what you’re saying and doing conflict with one another.

Don’t make changes just because your competition did.

Assess all the different ways that planned changes will affect your company. Jim Robertson from The Alternative Board recommends, “Before any new cultural structure is implemented, conduct a rigorous assessment of the financial benefits for your company.”

To help ensure your culture change in the workplace will succeed, make sure your company goals and culture are aligned. Reward the values you espouse. If you’re asking for innovation but you punish failure that typically comes with taking risks, you’ll have fewer people willing to attempt innovation.

Organizational Culture Change Examples

It can be instructive to see how other organizations have focused on certain areas to transform their culture. Here are a few organizational culture change examples to give you inspiration:

Salesforce

Salesforce is well known in sales circles, but it’s also well known for its culture of giving, as shown by its community giveback program. The company donates 1 percent of its yearly equity, 1 percent of its products, and 1 percent of employees’ time to community volunteer projects. Giving back to the community not only helps others, but it also supports team building, builds brand recognition, and can help attract new employees.

Other companies like Atlassian and Google have picked up on the concept for their own community giveback models.

Zappos

Online shoe company Zappos has developed a culture others want to mirror. In fact, Zappos has become such a culture change model that they offer a three-day “culture camp” to teach HR professionals how to build a culture like theirs. Their secret is that culture is their number one priority, from the CEO down. They have an intense focus on customer service and build a culture that fosters that. In fact, culture is a large part of their interview process.

Warby Parker

Selling prescription glasses online doesn’t sound like the kind of industry well known for its culture, but Warby Parker has succeeded in doing just that. They have made company culture a deliberate focus with a dedicated team that keeps positive culture front and center. This team sets up fun lunches, events, and programs to promote community.

Adobe

Adobe is a company that has built a culture on trust. They go out of their way to give employees challenging projects, but then they take the next step to provide the trust and support so employees can succeed. Adobe purposefully built a culture that avoids micromanaging. Rather, they trust employees to manage and complete their projects in a way they feel is best. The company’s history of innovative and successful products shows the fruits of their culture.

Motivating Employees to Accept Company Culture

While you may not be able to motivate everyone to accept culture change in the workplace, you can help shape measurable behaviors and hire new employees who exemplify your values. According to workplace culture expert Shane Green, the best ways to align new hires with company culture are to:

  • Define values and expectations during the job interview.
  • Make sure employees have a great experience during their first few days on the job and feel connected to the brand.
  • Provide thorough onboarding and training to set employees up for success.
  • Reward those who do well, and hold those that don’t accountable.
  • Communicate effectively.
  • Make it easy for your employees to work, access their information, and get paid.
  • Make sure managers are leaders. Leaders inspire and focus on people; managers focus on processes.

Nicole Dorskind from ThirtyThree advises employers to look at their own teams differently. “You should be essentially ‘re-hiring’ your team every day. Your employees need to understand what makes your business different and special in its current state, as well as its cultural ambitions. The more consistently and compellingly this is communicated, the more the right people will stay with your organization, become advocates, and embrace the journey.”

Successfully managing culture change in the workplace is challenging, but by following these tips from the experts you’ll be well on your way to creating a company culture geared for success.

Darren Perucci
Content Manager

Darren Perucci is a content manager for BambooHR. He likes to think of himself as a purveyor of all things content related. While he loves finding new ways of reaching new audiences he is passionate about delivering the best experience to readers.