How Do You Change Organizational Culture?

On Sunday night at the NRB Convention, I was on a panel discussion led by Phil Cooke. Our topic was “How to Change Organizational Culture.” This is something every leader eventually faces.

Corporate Culture - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #16830717

Photo courtesy of ©

Phil began the session by stating, “culture triumphs vision.” I agree completely.

Leaders often wonder why they can’t get traction in making the changes they know are necessary. They articulate a new vision. They change a few policies. They might even replace a few key people.

But nothing substantive changes.

The problem is that culture is largely invisible to those inside of it. It’s like water to a fish or air to a bird. It’s simply the environment we live in.

I faced this when I came to Thomas Nelson in the late 1990s. As an outsider, I was immediately aware of the culture. There were many aspects of it I loved, but others I knew I had to change in order to improve the operating results.

The changes in my area of responsibility happened quickly—within the first eighteen months. The operating results also improved dramatically. Changes to the broader company took longer, but, as my responsibilities grew, they eventually took root as well.

Based on my experience, here are six steps you can take to change the culture of your own business, church, or ministry:

  1. Become aware of the culture. Begin to notice it’s characteristics. Pay attention to shared values, the way people express themselves (particularly their language), and the stories they tell about their success and failures.
  2. Assess your current culture. Start by creating three lists:
    • What should stay? Write down the aspects of your culture that you like and want to preserve.

      At Thomas Nelson we had a performance culture that focused on profitability. I wanted to keep that. We had to succeed financially in order to resource our mission.

    • What should go? Write down the aspects of your culture that must die if you are going to go forward.

      At Thomas Nelson, we had a “closed book” operating philosophy. The only people who knew how the company was performing were those in top management.

      I believed that if we practiced an “open book” philosophy and everyone knew how the company was doing, we could all work together to improve results.

    • What is missing? Write down aspects of the culture that seem to be missing or weak.

      At Thomas Nelson, individual accountability was weak. People were afraid to take personal responsibility and this created a lot of blame-shifting.

  3. Envision a new culture. This is the fun part. Rather than simply complain about what is, begin to image what could be.

    Imagine you are working with a blank sheet of paper and anything is possible. What would the ideal culture look like? Write it down in as much detail as possible.

    I wrote down five pages of notes and then distilled it down to ten attributes. I then met with my leadership team, and we fine-tuned it. This became a blueprint for what we wanted to create.

  4. Share the vision with everyone. Culture will not change unless you cast a vision for something new. You have to articulate in a way that is compelling and specific.

    And you can’t just do this once. One of my mentors said to me, “Mike, you must keep casting the vision. When you start getting sick of hearing yourself talk about it, you’re only half done. Keep speaking it!”

    Why? Because, as Andy Stanley has noted, vision leaks (see his book, Making Vision Stick). Initially, the only existence vision has is in your words. You have to keep speaking it until it takes root and begins to grow.

  5. Get alignment from your leadership team. I’m talking about more than agreement. You need alignment. This is something altogether different.

    You want a team that buys the vision, understands what is at stake, and is willing to take a stand to make it happen.

    Think of it as a conspiracy. Not in the negative sense, but in the positive. You and your team are conspiring together to make a positive change that will transform your organization.

  6. Model the culture you want to create. The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders. If you change their attitudes, their values, their beliefs, their behaviors, you will change your culture. If you don’t, you will fail.

    This is why you must have alignment with your leadership team. If they are not willing to change their behavior and model what you are trying to create, you must replace them. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. If you don’t, nothing will change in the organization.

    As Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    And by the way, even if the people above you won’t change, you can change the culture of your department, division, or operating unit. In fact, that’s usually how it works.

    That is exactly how I did it at Thomas Nelson. I started implementing what I am sharing here five years before I became the president of the company. Frankly, I think it had a great deal to do with why I kept getting promoted.

Is it possible to change the culture of your organization? Absolutely. But like everything else in leadership, you must be intentional.

Question: What would changing your culture make possible for your organization? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Uma Maheswaran S

    Many times, changing the cultue would bring the benefit of improved productivity and greater efficiency in the organization. Also, culture change would help in weeding out the negativity and infusing the positivity into the system.

  • Jeremy Statton

    Thanks for the tips. Culture can be hard to discern when you are in the middle of it. If you go somewhere new (such as a different country) you can see why they do differently which can then help to understand your own culture.

    • John Tiller

      Very true, Jeremy.  

      I didn’t realize it until visiting Costa Rica (both the first- and third-world areas).  It really gave me a whole new perspective of national and local culture in the USA.  I’m better for it.

      Mark Batterson says it this way:  Change of Pace + Change of Place = Change of Perspective. 

  • Baljinder Uppal

    Hi Michael,
    You keep on spelling Gandhi wrongly ( I have seen it done 3 times atleast). This irritates your Indian readers. Please fix it.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I am so sorry. Thanks for pointing that out. I have fixed it.

  • Sharlene Sones

    Great post! I love the “model the culture” concept.  Part of my work includes helping organizations understand the stories being told internally by the people who ARE their brand.  What are the stories they believe about the organization, related to who they are, what they can do and what they stand for?  What are the myths and beliefs, conveyed via story that informs the culture? The takeaway: want to change culture? Change the story.  Invite people into a role in which they can see themselves.  Knowing the stories that are being told is a great first step to impact alignment and meaningful change.

  • Michael Hyatt

    Love your acronym! Excellent. Thanks.

  • Constance Buckley

    Changing our culture at church would open doors to newcomers to find a comfortable place to fit in during services and outside of church, in forming relationships.

  • Kumarreddykevin

    Thank so much very important life changing information once again thanks

  • David Barnes

    An interesting bottom-up model for large organizations was IBM, where in 2003 then-CEO Sam Palmisano initiated a global moderated “jam” on its intranet among its 300,000+ employees to define the company’s values.  This was the first consideration of those values in almost a century.   The conversations, complaints and ideas were distilled to three essential values.  A company’s values create essential framing for its culture, and Palmisano’s approach was to create a culture of leadership and a management system built on those values.  Palmisano has said that IBM’s recent business success has in part been a result of its adherence to its values.    

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  • Greg Ligon

    Great post.  Another great resource on culture is Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code by Dr. Sam Chand.  Check it out here -|2470960|111076|2470960|111076

  • Don

    Once again you are right on the mark and so are several of the other comments.
    My helpful contribution is in the form of a small book called Follow to Lead which is about establishing a particular culture in an organization–any organization from schools, scouts to business.  The culture is called the Followership Culture and holds everone in the organization from CEO to today’s new hire to the same set of principles.  It can be viewed as the foundational culture knowing that each unique organization needs to establish its own unique positive culture.

    Steps 3 through 6 and the new number 7 in the comments are all facilitated by working first on establishing the followership culture.  It’s easy, follow the book.

    Michael, I sent you a copy.  Can’t find it, let me know.  See it at

  • Gilbert Montez

    I enjoy reading your blog, but this posting is my all-time favorite. Outstanding stuff here. Thanks for challenging us to think through these issues. 

  • Stephen Blandino

    Good words Michael. Some of the elements that I’ve observed that shape organizational culture are Identity (vision and mission), core values, philosophy, norms (acceptable standards), traditions, language, measurements, and behaviors (what you refer to as modeling the culture you want to create). I think this is the biggest influence on culture. Leaders can bark the culture they want to see, but until they model it, the desired culture will never materialize.

  • Miranda, devout Christian

    Now here’s a leadership scheme put into description and direction! The part I liked best was “I wrote down five pages of notes and then distilled it down to ten attributes.” More than ever before, I’ve learned that dreaming and waiting is NEVER enough! You must directionally and realistically put things down (on paper if you will) for progress of any kind to happen, not just changing the culture in an organization.

    Well done!

  • Anonymous

    Michael, intentional leadership is the key.

    Leadership is influence.  Influence is power.  Leadership is not a position or a title. Therefore, anyone can be a leader.  What you do with your power, however, will determine what kind of leader you really are.  You are either a pride based leader or a humility based leader.

    Here are the characteristics of each:
    Pride Based Leadership:  Dominatior, For Myself, Always have something to prove, Always have something to lose, Always have something to hide, and Overpowering.

    Humility based leadership:  Liberator, For Others, Nothing to prove, Nothing to lose, Nothing to hide, Empowering.

    What is culture?  I know that their are a 1000 ways to describe it, but at its core, culture is essentially people and personalities.  When you hire someone, you are renting their behavior.  People are culture.  Healthy culture doesn’t exist if we try to create it with slogans and surprises alone (catchy gimmicks and internal p.r. campaigns).  If  we want to truly change the culture, we need to liberate others to believe THEY are the culture.   When we liberate others to believe they don’t have to wait for someone else to create the kind of healthy culture we all desire,  we have liberated and empowered them to actually BE and create that culture right now. If you happen to have a title that to gives you the privilege and power to lead others, you have the honor of liberating and empowering others to do the same. 

    I do agree that the kind of culture you desire needs to be defined, shared, and then expected.  That is the role of the leader in charge.  In my experience though, I’ve too often witnessed the leader expect change that they themselves don’t yet possess.  True culture change begins with THE LEADER in charge.  As my mentor Dr. Nathan Baxter says, “If you want to lead others well, you have to first do the work of leading yourself well. 

    Are we dominating or a liberating our people?  It’s the single greatest difference between a having thriving
    or a dying culture. Everyone is a leader.  Everyone has influence.  Everyone has power.  Liberate and empower people to be true to who they are as they strive to lead in a noble and pure way.  If people don’t believe that you are for them, you can forget about creating a thriving culture.  Is your leadership dead, or alive?

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  • Bret Maukonen

    “culture triumphs vision” or is it “culture trumps vision”?

  • Don

    Culture can be crafted to give life to the vision.

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  • Anonymous

    I know I’m late to the party, but thank you so much for this post. It has been continually marked as “unread” in my google reader so I can be sure to get back to it. I read all your posts and glean a good info from them all, but not since your “how to create a speaker page” has a post been EXACTLY what I needed right now. 

    I am completely re-organizing our ministry right now, and this post could not have been more pointed and perfect. Thank you again, my friend.

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  • Lpellet

    Great article, but I suggest adding in a quantitative assessment
    to ensure you capture all of the cultural indicators that might not be
    observable. Also would toss in a Values gap analysis that includes feedback
    from all employees.

  • David @ Time Clock

    Great post about company culture. You want people to want to come in and punch the time clock – not run the other way! Thanks for sharing – very inspirational!

  • Don Mercer
  • stressforsucess

    Negativity. Running rampant in our division, is the backward compliment and joking that is truth in disguise. You know the type, “Im just kidding” they say. Another aspect of noticing and dwelling on the bad and mentioning the good in passing. Every compliment is followed by a disappointment there is no room for success. Instead of celebrating the successes they belittle the failures. Employee is pitted against employee. You have to compete for your shift. You have a focus on quantity instead of quality. Every bending of the rules is overlooked for the ones who make you look good while focusing on each action of a different employee each month making them the scapegoat so focus is off of managment. Regimented, unbending. aloof, sarcastic, snide, passive agressive managment. Frightened, angry, isolated, uninvolved, sarcastic employees. How could you possibly expect change from this?

    • Michael Hyatt

      Why do you stay in this environment? That is not a rhetorical question. I am sincere. What keeps you there?

  • Culturechange

      I have enjoyed reading this great article about subject i am very interested in.

    C = ControlU = UnderstandingL = LeadershipT = TrustU = UnafraidR = ResponsiveE = Execution

  • Duncan Stuart

    Good pragmatic advice in your article. However I think there’s a question that comes first: does the culture need changing? Sometimes a perfectly good culture is well suited to achieve everything the organisation wishes to achieve – but the problem is that the subtribes (the money people, the engineers, the marketing people) don’t fully talk to each other. It’s like the three gears in a well oiled gearbox don’t totally mesh.  So rather than starting off by thinking: right – we need to change the culture, a preliminary step might be taken: let’s identify our objectives and work out how better to meet these.  If this doesn’t work, then start considering the culture.  The knack is to tap into willing change first, before foisting uncomfortable changes upon the crew.

    I do worry that if every CEO seeks to transform a corporate culture, and quickly, then a probable side-effect will be the development of an institutional resistance to change: especially if CEOs come and go frequently. The result will be an arms folded “here comes another one” from the team, and then, at that point, the organisation will have deeply serious issues that won’t be hard to shake. 

    That’s also where your advice about getting alignment from the senior team is pivotal.

  • Karl Rohde

    Thanks Michael. I’m of the view culture is about intention and the collective efforts of individuals. It starts with each of us. I wrote this article to capture my ideas around building the type of culture one would want to work in.

  • Ahmed Alfrttoosi

    The organization must plan where it wants to go before
    trying to make any changes in the organizational culture. With a clear picture
    of where the organization is currently, the organization can plan where it
    wants to be next .Organizational culture grows over time

  • Dhana

    Thanks for this, Michael. Can you pls write a post on Cultural Change and its Operational Implications and how to navigate around it successfully ?. Would appreciate that.