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Barry Bloch
Barry Bloch

Global Partner for Board and Executive Leadership


3 July 2024

Organisational Culture: Why does it matter, and can it actually be changed?

Just as personality can be refined to improve the success of individuals, learn how the culture of an organisation can be steered and influenced to enhance behaviour and accelerate business results.


At a glance:

  • Culture is fundamental to what an organisation is and what it achieves.
  • The perfect culture does not exist, and culture needs to be continuously, constantly and consciously steered and influenced to better serve the organisation’s future.
  • Leadership is a critical success factor in culture change and a responsibility that cannot be abdicated.

For Barry Bloch, Global Partner for Board and Executive Leadership, many similarities exist between the personality of individuals and the culture of an organisation.

“As human beings our personality drives our behaviours and the outcomes that we achieve,” Barry says. “Just as people can’t exist without a personality, culture is not an add-on for organisations – it is fundamental to what an organisation is and every element of how it sustains and succeeds.”

Organisational culture describes the collective values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and many unwritten rules that determine how people in an organisation engage, connect and perform. As the personality of an organisation, culture shapes the employee and stakeholder experience, and determines how an organisation thrives.

“When wisely and contextually utilised, culture can be an asset that enables, energises and enhances human behaviour, accelerating and sustaining business results. At its worst, it can be a drag on productivity and the emotional commitment that necessarily undermines long-term success,” Barry continues. “In either case, culture needs to be continuously, constantly and consciously steered and influenced to serve the organisation’s future, reducing the resistance it has on organisational change and enhancing its impact on performance.”

Lead cultural change, or let culture change lead you?

Neither the perfect personality nor the perfect culture exist – both have essential limitations and must continuously be adapted to survive, sustain and thrive. As with the individual being central to their own development, leadership is critical in successful culture change.

“Despite the importance of good leadership, we often see this responsibility abdicated to HR,” Barry says. “But culture is about much more than employee wellbeing, and no matter how capable functional support teams are, their role is to help leaders lead, not to take the lead.”

Another fundamental question that leaders must ask is whether to consciously change culture, or to let culture change itself. “When circumstances are left to dictate culture, you are more likely to end up in the wrong place,” says Barry. “For an organisation to reap the benefits of a strong and cohesive culture, change must be intentional. It must also be about more than just meeting altruistic or generalised criteria, but about helping an organisation to grow towards its aspired future.”

Knowing when change is needed

As individuals we might ask if our personality is effective to allow us to succeed – equally, leaders must ask if the culture is effective for the organisation. When change is needed, it must come from deep understanding and intent, and there is no substitute for endless and intensive conversations and connection to nurture this.

“To get a read on culture, leaders must find ways to hear what is not normally told to them and develop an understanding of how culture plays out, which requires leaders to constantly listen, aggregate and integrate data, including discerning between noise and insight, reflect, act and challenge,” Barry says. “In the same way that customer relationships, finances, risk and strategy are regularly discussed at Board and Executive level, culture must be seen as equally intrinsic to how an organisation is led and run.”

How to embed culture change in your organisation

Deeply embedded culture does not change quickly:
With culture there is no magic wand, and the timeline for change is determined by the unique circumstances of the organisation. “As the change requirement isn’t always clear, ongoing understanding, insight and leadership of culture is key to success. By asking the right questions, in the right way, with the right people and listening genuinely, leaders can uncover where the need or opportunity for further culture change exists,” says Barry. “To set the pace for change, consider whether you are in crisis; driving major transformation; or simply aligning with ongoing market changes and dynamics. Also determine whether your culture lags the market reality; if dysfunction or toxicity exists in your culture; and how the culture of the organisation can be fundamental to competitive advantage.”

Build on existing culture before making a change:
The existing culture of an organisation can be a powerful source of energy, and in most cases, you don’t need or want to incur the risks of a major culture overhaul. “Change needn’t be about complete transformation, it can be a case of subtle and continuous refinement and polishing,” Barry says. “As culture is rarely all bad, using elements of the existing culture can help to accelerate change and performance. Building on existing culture is also less disruptive than attempting wholesale change, and often more manageable and sustainable over time.”

Start with changing behaviours, not mindsets:
Psychologically, it’s typically much easier to act your way into new thinking, than to think your way into new actions. The same is true for achieving culture change. “To change organisational culture, focus first on changing a few critical behaviours,” says Barry. “By changing behaviours at different levels and within key populations, a mindset and attitude shift will most likely follow. And when behaviour results in recurring and consistent performance improvements, it will yield longer lasting cultural change.”

Use viral methods to motivate behaviour change:
Culture change isn’t driven by gimmicks, flashy posters or events, it requires endless conversations to happen virally across the organisation. “Shifting culture requires cross-organisational levers and approaches, not just formal, one size fits all and often tick-box change programs,” says Barry.

Prioritise and mobilise psychological forces:
To reinforce new behaviour patterns and achieve lasting cultural change, individuals must feel connected and a sense of belonging. “Nothing is logical, everything is psychological,” says Barry. “There will always be a place for logic, but to create a sense of belongingthere must be an emotional connection too.”

Embrace the power of storytelling:
To accelerate formal change methods, you need to get people talking. “Changing your culture means changing your story, which can’t always happen from the top down,” says Barry. “As a leader you need to lean on the real influencers across the organisation to share the purpose and create a common language, and storytelling is a powerful way to achieve this.”

Culture change requires consistent effort, accountability and leadership, and approaching it in the right way can significantly improve the performance of an organisation. For advice or support implementing cultural change within your organisation, connect with Barry or reach out to your local Gerard Daniels team.

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