Your safety comes first. We are currently running all accreditation workshops virtually. Visit our workshop page for more information.

Why is Culture Change so Hard

Published on 26 Mar 2018



The following questions are often posed by our clients:

  1. Why is culture change so hard?

  2. What is a ‘reasonable’ stretch goal for measurable culture change?

  3. How long will it take us to change from a Passive/Defensive or Aggressive/Defensive culture to a Constructive one?

In many ways the answers to the second two questions lie in the answers to the first.

Changing an organisations culture is difficult for three main reasons:

The organisations culture itself. Assuming the organisations culture is Passive/Defensive and/or Aggressive/Defensive, then the culture itself makes change hard. Since culture influences how people behave, it is highly likely that the organisation will go about culture change in a manner that is consistent with its current culture.

a. Organisations with Passive/Defensive cultures are likely to focus on ‘quick wins’ but avoid dealing with some of the ‘tougher’ issues such as (for example) performance management. Whilst management may consider themselves to be kind in not dealing with known poor performers, this simply continues to send the message to people that there is no point in trying hard.

b. Organisations with Aggressive/Defensive cultures are likely to lose sight of the fact that it is the organisations systems, structures, job design, communication and leadership processes that is driving employee behaviour and instead (for example) focus on the people as being the issue as they are ‘not willing to take accountability’ or ‘not willing to change’.

This, we find, is the single biggest barrier to cultural change and why many organisations just don’t get past that first hurdle. It requires the CEO to show genuine commitment to the change and some wisdom amongst those (generally HR or P & C) beginning the process.

2. The second reason lies in the complex nature of organisational culture. We know that culture is harder to change than climate. Organisational climate (for example engagement) is about attitudes and feelings. Organisational culture on the other hand is about beliefs. And everyone knows that changing beliefs is much harder than changing attitudes or feelings.Attitudes can be changed by manipulating contextual factors – information, remuneration, work environment, social events etc; where changing beliefs require internal conclusions at the individual level across a large number of organisational members.
3. The third reason lies in the reality that culture changes not by attempting to change the culture directly, but indirectly. Culture change is achieved by changing the various factors (we call the Causal Factors for obvious reasons; as shown in the below "How Culture Works" Model) that influence, shape and cause the current culture. Research has shown that these factors include:

  • Articulation of mission and service focus – proving people with a sense of shared meaning about their effort.
  • Structures – how structure impacts members’ involvement, empowerment and ability to influence.
  • Systems – how the HR systems, reinforcement systems and goal setting systems shape behaviour.
  • Technologies – how the organisation takes inputs and turns them into outputs – particularly job design.
  • Communication – how information flows up and down the organisation.
  • Leadership – how those in leadership positions behave and how they impact the behaviour of those they lead.

Identifying how these currently influence the culture and then identifying ways of changing these to reinforce constructive behavioural norms is the key to successful culture change.

How Culture Works Model

How Culture Works2

The next question is: What is a ‘reasonable’ stretch goal for measurable culture change?

Here we specifically talk about the culture profile in terms of the ircumplex – the actual behavioural norms that exist throughout the organisation. We generally recommend re-measuring about 18 months after the initial measure and thereafter every 18 months to 2 years. Within this context, we believe a significant shift would be about a ’one ring’ – reducing the defensive styles from say the 75th percentile to the 50th, or increasing the constructive styles from say the 25th to the 50th and so on.

Don’t expect a miraculous change to the ideal or preferred culture profile in the first re-measure! It takes time to change culture and that will be addressed in the next question.

So how long will it take us to change from a Passive/Defensive or Aggressive/Defensive culture to a Constructive one?

The quickest we have seen a change from a predominantly defensive culture to a predominantly constructive culture (not necessarily as constructive as the ideal/preferred profile, but nonetheless more constructive than defensive) is about 18 months to 2 years. It must be noted that in these cases there has been absolute commitment from the CEO with those individuals leading the change and being very articulate about why and how the change needs to take place.

Typically we see it takes about 3 to 5 years to shift from a defensive to a constructive culture. Given, as noted earlier, culture is changed indirectly through changing the relevant causal factors, it take time for such changes to filter through and have people see that ‘things really are changing’.  Since it is about changing beliefs, organisational members need to see the reality of genuine change (not just a PR exercise) in several instances in order for them to form new beliefs about how they should behave. 

By Shaun McCarthy, Chairman of Human Synergistics Australia & New Zealand