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Top 5 Tips for Successful Culture Change - Peeling Back The Layers

Updated: May 2

I am often asked how we can start to change a company culture and how to go about it. However, the journey of trying to change a culture is often underestimated by many, and how to go about it is misunderstood. As culture is the intangible fabric that weaves through every aspect of an organisation or community, it stands as a formidable entity to transform.

The process of attempting to change a culture isn't a sprint; it's a marathon that spans years. It’s often referred to as unpeeling an onion, i.e., layers and layers that need to be peeled off to gain insight before getting to the core. In this blog, I will be drawing on the approaches of culture change as described by the authors; Barbara Senior, Stephen Swailes, and Edgar Schein.

An onion cut in half, symbolizing the many layers of culture change in human resources.

1) Understand the Current Culture Before Implementing Change

To navigate change, one must first grasp the existing cultural landscape. This introspection is the compass guiding the path to transformation. You can’t plan a journey without knowing your starting point. Culture isn't merely a set of norms; it's the soul of an entity—a tapestry of shared beliefs, values, behaviours, and unspoken rules that shape its identity.

You need to undertake a cultural audit of the current state before being able to define where you want to get to. This can be done by ascertaining the following:

  • What are the rights (accepted behaviours that mould interactions).

  • What are the rituals (these are the recurrent actions and ceremonies that reflect what an organisation truly values).

  • Who are the heroes and villains and what are the stories (heroes, the figures revered for embodying desired traits, while villains exhibit behaviours contradictory to the desired culture, i.e., the manager who shouts at people in the open office, or a hero the director who helped to unpack boxes to help meet a deadline).

  • Basic assumptions (how are things done around here? The unseen beliefs guiding actions, often unnoticed yet omnipresent).

  • Procedural justice & how are things done around here (how do the procedures and process reflect the organisation; how far can we break the rules without facing consequences).

  • How easy is it to challenge norms or take risks without fear of repercussions.

  • Examine the artifacts (things like office furniture and the seating arrangements of managers, as these reflect and often symbolise the deeper norms and values within a workplace. I.e. the arrangement of office furniture might represent the hierarchy, status or level of collaboration within an organisation).

2) Don’t Underestimate The Vital Role of Leadership's Engagement

For a culture change to be a success or even taken seriously by an organisation, the leaders need to take an active interest in wanting to change the culture and empowering others to take a stand. They don't merely steer; they champion change. Leading by example, they set the tone for the envisioned culture. The leadership should attempt to get the business involved in the journey and who else is better to help define the current culture and ways of working than the people living, breathing, and feeling the organisation. Don’t underestimate the role of culture change champions.

3) Define Where You Want to Go & How to Get There

The whole organisation should have been instrumental in defining the existing culture; now, they can start to help define the desired culture and what shifts change projects' actions need to happen and when and how to start to influence any change. This needs to be a well-thought-out approach with careful action planning and agreement on the required steps with clearly defined ownership. Set up culture action groups involving employees and empower them as change agents with specific projects and actions to define what needs to be done to change the culture. Ensure you take small steps, not giant leaps; change isn't a singular leap; it's a series of small, intentional steps.

At each stage, the organisation should communicate the plans. I.e., this could be as simple as suggesting that better two way communication needs to be implemented, the action being to hold Town halls with a built mechanism for questions and answers sessions. Or to implement open plan office working to foster more collaborative ways of working and breaking down perceptions of status.

The plans for cultural change should be shared so everyone can come onboard with the change and so they can understand the benefit and defined outcome. Successes and cultural shifts should be celebrated, and during this time, success should be measured; this could be by measuring employee engagement score across the workforce over the period of change.

4) Nurturing Success with Culture Action Groups

Success isn't just in reaching the destination; it's about nurturing the journey. These culture action groups with leadership support, play a pivotal role in managing success. Their active participation ensures that change isn't just an abstract concept, but a reality lived and breathed by everyone. Ensure that positive reinforcement and communication of process of providing to the business on a regular basis.

5) Continuous Evaluation (Staying On Track): Are We Embracing Our New Culture And Values?

It's vital to ensure that every action aligns with our desired image, atmosphere, and cultural aspirations. Establishing measures and mechanisms to identify any discrepancies or concerns in alignment with our culture is essential. This allows us to swiftly address issues and realign with our cultural objectives if required.

Conclusion: Embracing Transformation

In summary, initiating cultural change within an organisation demands recognition of its intricacies and a commitment to long-term evolution. It's not merely about altering surface-level norms; it's about understanding the deeper layers that shape an organisations identity. The process, likened to peeling layers off an onion, requires patience and introspection.

Understanding the existing cultural landscape becomes the bedrock for any transformational journey. Engaged leadership, collaborative efforts, and a clear roadmap defining where an organisation stands and where it aspires to be serve as guiding lights.

Recognising the significance of each small stride towards change is pivotal. Success isn't just confined to achieving defined outcomes; it's about nurturing a culture that echoes the aspirations and values of the organisation. Embracing transformation, however gradual, is an affirmation of progress.

Each layer of change unveiled brings us closer to a more evolved, vibrant culture—one that not only defines our collective identity but also propels us towards shared success and prosperity.

If you need HR support on this topic, please reach out to Progressive HR Solutions via email at

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