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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


Stop Blaming Your Culture

Repeated behaviors have cultural impact because they are contagious. People unconsciously imitate what they see others do. This is particularly true among respected colleagues; mutual respect is a powerful source of influence. Even small changes in behavior, if they are picked up by more than one individual, can ripple through an organization as others see their value and begin to act accordingly.

In moving people to change behaviors, you will need to rely on both rational arguments and emotional appeal. On the rational side, you need to make a case for change: Here’s why this particular behavior is needed. Help people recognize, for example, how the new behaviors will support the firm’s business strategy, will improve customer retention rates, or will be received by Wall Street analysts.

But emotional factors will undoubtedly matter even more. Compassion, fairness, and environmental responsibility are very convincing motivators. So are relief from anxiety and the opportunity to work more congenially with other people. Many employees will likely be concerned about how the changes will affect their peers, their own ability to take pride in their work, their work–life balance, and their family’s and community’s reactions, as well as the firm’s reputation. These issues must be addressed at a gut level, to ensure that acceptance of the change will be genuine, enthusiastic, and widespread.

Understanding without acceptance and commitment will not suffice. Nor will acceptance and commitment suffice without discipline, alignment, and the right capabilities. The rational and emotional elements need to align to yield sustainable change.

Pragmatic Practices

Numerous principles for changing culture through behavior have become evident through ongoing practice.

• Start pragmatically. Don’t try to change everything at once. Focus on a few critical behaviors that resonate with your current culture, but that will raise your organization’s performance. Explicitly identify the target group — the employees whose behavior needs to change — and bring the necessary changes to life by demonstrating them.

• Reinforce the new behaviors through formal and informal means. Provide formal metrics, incentives, and process guidance that lead people to practice these new behaviors again and again, until they experience their value. For example, set up appraisals, salary reviews, and training to reinforce and reward the new behaviors you seek. At the same time, develop informal connections that foster the responsiveness and emotional commitment needed to deal with the unexpected. When there’s a challenging situation, like Shell’s reliability issue, cultivate support networks of people who can assess it and put in place actions not prescribed by process and procedure.

• Seek out role models for the new behavior. Start with the most effective practitioners, the people who distinguish themselves by the way they act. We often call these individuals pride builders because their example helps instill pride about the behavior change. They can also help you find ways to get others to adopt the same behavior. This work is sometimes known as looking for positive deviance.

Several years ago, Bell Canada — a 35,000-employee telecommunications company owned by BCE Inc. — started with a dozen such pride builders. They rapidly became exemplars for others, and they helped explain to the executives why people did not always adhere to the critical behaviors. The CEO then asked the group to help develop at least 1,000 more exemplars by the end of the year. Each member of the first group identified 10 or more other pride builders, and the group took off exponentially. With several more iterations, this effort directly touched more than 15,000 employees — more than a third of the entire workforce — by the end of the year.

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  1. Joel Cooper, Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory (Sage, 2007): Solid introduction to Leon Festinger’s grand idea and its relevance to today’s conflicts.
  2. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the (In)Formal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results (Jossey-Bass, 2010): Integrating formal and informal measures (with more on the Aetna story).
  3. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, “Leading Outside the Lines,” s+b, Summer 2010: How StockPot, a division of Campbell’s Soup, used metrics to shift cultural behavior.
  4. Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Harvard Business Press, 2010): Changing behavior by championing people who get better results.
  5. Edgar H. Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (rev. ed., Jossey-Bass, 2009): Realistic, masterful handbook for diagnosing your culture and raising its tacit assumptions to the surface.
  6. The Katzenbach Center website: Ongoing source of research and insight on culture change theories and methods.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, visit s+b’s website at:
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