Will This Change Our Culture?

The point is that while experts have their processes and special methods, it is the leaders who determine their value and effectiveness.

October 1, 2013

Changing culture is complicated and takes time, reinforcement, investment, and a daily commitment of everyone involved in order to make it last. Success is not linear — here will be quick accomplishments, setbacks, even some stalls or reversals. If you advise a leader considering a people-treatment initiative to build or enhance standards of civility, ethics, and inclusion, here are the questions he or she will probably ask you: “Will this work?”;  “How can you prove it?”;  “What’s the cost?”; and “What’s the payoff?”

Experts usually respond to such questions by pointing to past successes and explaining how they involved variations of the same processes being proposed.  They’ll also submit references, case histories, and cite business benefits. Taken together, these steps lead to the conclusion that: “Yes, this will change culture”; “Here are the outcomes”; and “It’s all worth it.”

Prior case examples, successes, references, and an established methodology are important. But, they are only a part of the answer. In fact, the key part of any advisor’s response is not complete unless it poses questions just as specific to organizational leaders as those posed to the experts. But often leadership questions are ignored or overlooked.

The point is that while experts have their processes and special methods, it is the leaders who determine their value and effectiveness. Having leaders support an action with their own time, energy, passion, and sustained conduct will significantly increase the success rate for the desired change. Investing a lot of resources but excluding leaders from the process will diminish the results, no matter how much is spent.  

Asking an expert to vouch for an outcome without a clear understanding of leadership commitment is sort of like a patient seeing a doctor about wanting to lose weight, having the doctor prescribe a diet, and then asking the doctor, “How much weight will I lose?”

In true Socratic homage, the key question leaders must answer goes like this: “Will your organization commit to all the steps to assure that culture change will take hold and last?”

So, what questions should we be asking organizational leaders when it comes to making and sustaining culture change? There are many, but here are a few that focus on commitment, resources, and reinforcement. 

Will your organization:

·       make culture change your priority rather than delegating the task to someone else to handle?

·       define clear behaviors that define cultural standards?

·       enforce action for violations, particularly if senior leaders or visible organizational “stars” commit them?

·       integrate desired standards into ongoing workplace conversations, education, and rewards?

·       build a plan supported by resources to obtain specific and measurable results, the same way it would with any other strategic business objective?

·       value the results we are seeking to obtain to justify a long-term investment commitment, which, at times, may include painful decisions?

Unless these questions are given careful consideration and a committed response, an adviser’s honest answer to the question of whether a culture change will be successful should be: “I can’t give you assurances that you will obtain the result you want.”

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at