Organizational Culture Change Starts with Stories from the Top!

For the past couple of months, I’ve been working with a client that is quickly becoming one of my favorites. They are intentional and purposeful in how they address several critical success factors for organizational culture change. This includes defining interpersonal communication norms; and setting “rules of engagement” for managing adversarial relationships and elevating professionalism in the workplace. Included in their focus, was gaining a greater understanding of how differences in work approaches might stem from employee generational gaps. There is a lot to consider indeed, but this is actually consistent with what many organizations face.

Standard Changes and Organizational Culture Change

We tackled this work using some standard approaches. These approaches included employee/leader/stakeholder interviews, focus groups, and listening sessions.  However, assuming you understand that a need for organizational culture change exists, if you really want to know what employees desire, go listen to them in the “cafeteria”, outside of formal meetings. We can replace “cafeteria” with “water cooler”, “coffee station”, or any number of places.  The point is that employee satisfaction surveys and formal meetings are necessary, but true stories of needed change are expressed in informal but common settings.

We also noted that people talk about the leader.  Employees, especially in small groups, will express their relative pleasure or displeasure with leadership.

As we sought to uncover the root causes of their concerns, we successfully identified several reasons why the issues were able to set in and grow.  However, merely identifying root causes does not ensure a successful plan can be developed to address the issues.  Stating “we lack professionalism and it’s coming from XYZ” doesn’t mean that we simply tell the offending parties to be more professional and the problem is solved!

To address the how of culture change, we used many of the concepts found in The Secret of Culture Change by Jay B. Barney, Manoel Amorim, and Carlos Julio. In the book, the authors discuss how to build authentic stories that transform organizational culture. We took these concepts and we did the same.  To effect organizational culture change, leaders must build their own stories. Employees will take these stories forward and talk about them.

What the leader does in a bold, public way, bringing the rest of the organization’s leadership with them, is the key to successful organizational change.

Stories and Change

organizational culture change stories

We focused on the ability of the organization’s leaders to share their own stories of culture change. This provided examples of what we expected the rest of the employee base to embrace.  Leaders had an opportunity to share what they committed to start/stop/continue doing. Specifically, as it related to building and maintaining the organizational culture to which they desired.

Below are 6 “secrets” we borrowed from the book to effect the successful organizational culture change. Look at your organization and ask if any of these apply to situations you are currently resolving:

  1. The change story must be authentic to the person telling the story. Employees can sniff out BS.
  2. The leader must star in their own story.  Culture change is top-down and the leader must show that they are on board as well.
  3. The change story must break with the past while writing a path for the future… that path must be directional but not point-by-point prescriptive.
  4. The story must appeal to both the head (business case) and the heart (tug at your sense of purpose).
  5. The story must be memorable, on the verge of theatre.
  6. The story and storytelling process must empower others in the organization to build their own stories.

If the leader can’t authentically be the face of organizational culture change, they need to recuse themselves from the process. At least the leadership piece of it. The leader must set an example/standard and invite everyone else to follow.


Photo by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay

Image by Steve Cliff from Pixabay