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Team building

10 attributes of culture that make it so difficult to change – especially when workers aren’t in the office

Published 18 November 2021 in Team building • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Understanding your company’s culture is essential to design a strategy and structure that will enable your employees to perform at their best, says Professor Michael Watkins.

While there is universal agreement that organizational culture plays a crucial role in how organizations perform, there is little consensus on what it is, never mind how it influences behavior and, crucially, how leaders can change it. 

This is a problem because, without a clear understanding of cultures, we cannot hope to develop good approaches to analyzing, preserving and transforming them. If we can define what organizational culture is, we will better understand how to diagnose cultural issues and develop better cultures. 

The challenge is increasingly pressing. With the rise of new technologies disrupting sectors and businesses, companies have to adapt their cultures to become more flexible and curious. 

The COVID crisis has further complicated the task of changing culture. Organizations have grappled with how to instill and maintain company culture when employees are working remotely. A clear understanding of culture will help managers onboard new joiners and sustain cultures in hybrid working environments. 

Now, as companies start to bring workers back to the office, it will be essential to consider the divergent views of employees. While some workers might be reluctant to return to the rigidity of regular office days, others, particularly new joiners, are craving the chance to finally meet and bond with colleagues. The head of learning and development at a global sporting and equipment company, who onboarded during the pandemic, recently told me, “I’m suffering from culture deprivation.” She was happy to conform to the firm’s Tuesday to Thursday in the office policy. But at the same time, she worried about losing talented long-timers who were reluctant to give up the flexibility they gained by working from home.

Finally, with rising workplace stress and a growing focus on how organizations protect their employees’ mental health, having a strong culture is vital to attract and retain staff.

Here are some ways to think about organizational culture and the implications for changing it:

A clear understanding of culture will help managers onboard new joiners and sustain cultures in hybrid working environments.

1. Culture is‘how we do things here

Culture gives rise to consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations. This view highlights that behavioral patterns or “habits” are central to culture; it’s not just what people feel, think, or believe. This view also focuses attention on the forces that shape behavior in organizations and their critical importance in making culture change happen. 

Implication: It’s not enough to focus just on changing values and attitudes – if behaviors don’t change, culture doesn’t change.

2. Culture acts as a control system – for better and worse

Culture promotes and reinforces ‘right’ thinking and behaving and sanctions ‘wrong’ thinking and behaving. Key in this view of culture is the idea of behavioral ‘norms’ that must be upheld and associated social sanctions imposed on those who don’t ‘stay within the lines.’ This view also focuses attention on how the evolution of the organization shaped the culture. That is, how have existing norms and values promoted the survival of the organization in the past? Critically, what happens when the organizational environment shifts dramatically due, for example, to technological developments, the rapid emergence of new competitors, or a global pandemic that closes offices and forces a mass shift to remote working? 

Implication: Established cultures can become impediments to survival when organizations face substantial environmental changes. 

3. Culture is powerfully shaped by incentives 

The best predictor of what people will do in organizations is what they are incentivized to do. By incentives, we mean here the complete set of incentives — not just monetary rewards, but also non-monetary rewards such as how people get status, recognition and advancement — to which members of the organization are subject. So to understand an organization’s culture, it helps to focus on incentives and the behaviors they encourage and discourage.

Implication: Changes in incentives can powerfully influence behaviors and hence, over time, reshape culture. 

4. Culture helps people ‘make sense’ of what is going on

Sense-making is defined as “a collaborative process of creating shared identity and understanding  of different individuals’ perspectives and varied interests.” Culture is more than just patterns of behavior; it’s also jointly-held beliefs and interpretations about ‘what is’ A crucial purpose of culture is to help orient its members to “reality” in ways that provide a basis for alignment of shared purpose and joint action. 

Implication: The right changes in culture can better help people ‘make sense’ of emerging challenges and opportunities and so adapt more quickly. 

5. Culture is an essential source of shared identity

Culture provides not only a shared view of ’what is’ but also of ‘why it is.’ Culture is about ‘the story’ of the organization and the values that reinforce the narrative. This view focuses attention on the importance of organizational values and the benefits of having people feel connected to and inspired by them. It also highlights the danger that attempts to change values can result in a loss of a sense of shared identity and connection to the organization. 

Implication: Leaders considering developing a new set of values should weigh the benefits of having ‘better’ values against the potential costs of people experiencing a loss of connection to the past and diminution of the loyalty and engagement that flows from it. 

6. Culture is the organizational equivalent of the human immune system

Culture is a form of protection that has contributed to organizational survival. It prevents ‘wrong thinking’ and ‘wrong people’ from entering the organization in the first place. It says that organizational culture functions much like the human immune system in preventing viruses and bacteria from taking hold and damaging the body. 

Implication: Organizational immune systems can also attack needed agents of change. This has important consequences for what needs to happen to successfully onboard and integrate people who are ‘different’ into organizations.

7. Organizational culture is shaped by societal culture

Organizational culture is shaped by and overlaps with other cultures — especially the broader culture of the societies in which it originated and operates. This view highlights the challenges that regional and global organizations face in establishing and maintaining a unified culture when operating in the context of multiple national, regional and local cultures. 

Implication: Leaders must strike the right balance between promoting ‘one culture’ in the organization and allowing for influences of local cultures. 

8. Organizational culture always is multi-layered

The cultures of organizations are never monolithic. Many factors drive variations in the culture of business functions (e.g., finance vs. marketing) and units (e.g., a fast-moving consumer products division vs. a pharmaceuticals division of a diversified firm). A company’s history of acquisition also shapes its culture and sub-cultures. 

Implication: If acquisition and integration are not managed well, the legacy cultures of acquired units can persist for a surprisingly long time. This contributes to a lack of shared identity and challenges for people moving between units.

9. Organizational cultures are dynamic

Cultures shift incrementally and constantly in response to external and internal changes. So, assessing organizational culture is complicated by the reality that you are trying to hit a moving target. But it also opens the possibility that culture change can be managed as a continuous process rather than through substantial shifts (often in response to crises). Likewise, it highlights the idea that a stable ‘destination’ may never — indeed should never — be reached. 

Implication: Organizational cultures should continually evolve and develop to meet emerging challenges; it’s far better to incrementally shape cultures than to have to drive dramatic shifts.

10. Culture is resilient

Finally, for precisely the reasons cultures can be so powerful, they are difficult to change. 

Implication: Changing a culture takes committed leadership, often requiring years of concerted and consistent effort, including intensive work to communicate and reinforce desired new behaviors and values. 

These 10 perspectives provide a holistic, nuanced view of organizational culture that should help leaders improve their understanding of their organizations — and change them for the better.


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers.


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