Nine Propositions to Spark Culture Change

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a quote often attributed to Peter Drucker. It is so true; your best laid plans are for nought if they don’t work with the culture of the organisation. If your strategy and its plans grate against the culture not only will they not have the effect you were hoping for, they may even serve to deepen the culture you are trying to change.

No, we need a different mechanism to adjust corporate culture. We talk about culture as if it were one thing – THE culture. It is simply not like that. By unpicking that assumption with these nine propositions, I hope to bring together ideas that might influence culture to change in the direction you do want it to go.

By the way, I have chosen the term proposition because it implies action. I also believe the propositions to be true, but at the same time acknowledge they are contentious and may not hold the same level of truth for everyone. They are intended to be somewhat provocative though –  hopefully some of their usefulness flows from that very quality. If you don’t find complete truth in them I hope they take you somewhere you do find more truth; something to kick against, to use the management vernacular.


Here are nine propositions to spark culture change:


Culture is the collective set of behaviours and sayings of people in an organisation.


At work people behave in a way that is influenced by a small number of key factors;

  • Who they are – values, beliefs, personality, previous experiences and so on.
  • The situation in which they find themselves – how the hierarchy works and their place in it, how the leaders behave, what rewards and recognition are given, the manner in which they are given, how they get on with their colleagues and so on.
  • The avoidance of discomfort and inconvenience – this can be a powerful ally or an insidious foe.
  • What they want to achieve – personally, socially and emotionally, as well as in their work.
  • How they feel.


Understanding some of the reasons people say the things they say and behave as they do can outline the culture we have and give clues about how to move to the culture we want.

People tend to say and do things that:

  • Help them to fit in: things they think others expect them to say, they have seen others do, or that are popular things to say or ways to behave.
  • Help them to achieve their objectives.
  • Express what they are thinking, feeling and believing.
  • Are driven by their values.
  • Are allowed. There are rarely explicit rules about what you shouldn’t say at work, but everyone quickly picks up on what is frowned upon or an outright taboo.
  • Are not spoken. By this I mean non-verbal communication such as giving the thumbs up or eye rolling that can convey important cultural messages and opinions about people, groups, processes or events.


We cannot change a culture directly because it is too complex to define and creating a culture is not within the power of an individual.

A more pragmatic way forward, assuming you agree with proposition one, is to define the sorts of behaviours and sayings of which you want more, and of which you want fewer.

Here are some key things we can change that are likely to influence the behaviours and sayings of people in an organisation:

  • Tools
  • Processes
  • Environment
  • Expectations
  • Rewards and Recognition
  • The way people are treated
  • The staff themselves (selecting for attitude can be useful in influencing culture. Skills can be taught and knowledge can be learned, after all)


Culture is a function of networks

  • Any organisation has many networks operating within it and across its functional and external boundaries. In one sense, any boundaries perceived within or at the edges of an organisation are purely conceptual; they exist in theory or on paper but in practice, and crucially in the sense of personal and professional networks, they are of limited relevance.
  • If you accept this proposition, who is in what networks and who are the real influencers in and outside an organisation becomes of paramount importance. It may be that some of these networks are already formalised within your organisation as, say, communities of practice or through internal social-professional media. In any case the leaders of these networks are people with influence in your organisation.
  • Whether they have a job title that sounds managerial or not staff in your organisation are looking to these people for leadership. If we support these (informal) leaders to achieve their objectives, their (positively) disruptive tendencies can be helpful in furthering broader cultural aims.
  • That isn’t to say that formal leadership doesn’t have a vital role to play. Without the support of the formal leadership hierarchy, all the way to CEO level, any cultural change is doomed to failure. People still look to formal leaders for setting the core standards and expectations as well as the overall direction of the business.


What leaders say and what they do makes an incalculable difference to culture.

Expanding on that point, many leaders don’t realise the weight carried by their behaviour and what they say. As well as the things leaders do, behaviour can be things they don’t do.

Consider Gruenert and Whitaker’s (2015) astute observation which provides some rich food for thought:

“The culture of any organisation is shaped by

the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.”

Suppose everyone is meant to turn up for work by 9am and someone arrives at ten past nine. If the leader doesn’t address this failure to comply, a cultural norm has been established that immediately sweeps aside the official rules – a sub-culture has emerged. Suddenly, and without anyone saying anything, it is OK to turn up ten minutes late.

Leaders’ behaviours are infectious – people tend to emulate them – that is why they are leaders. If you are a leader and you think it is OK to ask your staff to behave in a way you do not, think again… “Anyone caught promoting a blame culture will be made an example of!” [sic]. So;

  • What the authority figures in the organisation say and do should be in support of the cultural objectives by recognising, encouraging and, most importantly, demonstrating the behaviours and sayings we want to see more often.
  • Just as importantly, when performance, quality or behaviours are not what we want, we should respectfully and sensitively give honest feedback about that performance, quality or behaviour in a way that allows the recipient to respond and grow (see also proposition 4 – the way people are treated).


Ideas, tools and techniques to help spark culture change are more plentiful, accessible and better empirically tested than they have ever been.

Here are three I particularly like:


In partnership with the UK Cabinet Office, the Behavioural Insights Team helpfully created the acronym MINDSPACE as a checklist for how to nudge behaviours in the desired direction. While they have government policy in mind the mechanisms are universal, tapping as they do into to people’s inherent cognitive biases and making good use of automatic effects.

Messenger we are heavily influenced by who communicates information
Incentives our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts, such as strongly avoiding losses
Norms we are strongly influenced by what others do
Defaults we ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
Salience our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
Priming our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues
Affect our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
Commitments we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
Ego we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves

Adapted from: Dolan et al (2010)


ii) The Science of Persuasion

We can thank Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin for their short video on influencing people. The following factors have been shown to work wonders in influencing people. Notice there are some similar themes to MINDSPACE:

  • Reciprocity – be the first to give and make it personalised and unexpected
  • Scarcity – we all want more of the things we can have less of
  • Authority – establish what makes you a credible, knowledgeable authority before you attempt to influence having someone else do this for you is very effective
  • Consistency – ask for small initial commitments that can be made. These must be voluntary, active and public, preferably in writing. People find subsequent larger commitments easier to make as a result
  • Liking – we do things for people we like. We are better disposed to like someone who a) is similar to us, b) pays us compliments, c) co-operates with us in working towards mutual goals
  • Consensus – we are more likely to do what other people are doing. To get people to do something point out how many other people like them are already doing it.

Based on Cialdini (2003)


iii) What really motivates people

As so eloquently demonstrated in Dan Pink’s ten minute RSA video, as long as we are paying people enough to stop money being an issue, and the tasks they are performing at least require rudimentary cognitive skill, they will not be more motivated by more money. Instead they will be better motivated by these three things:

  • Autonomy – we can do amazing things when management gets out of our way
  • Mastery – we are strongly motivated by the desire to be experts and constantly improve
  • Purpose – a transcendent purpose is more motivating to us than financial reward

Based on Pink (2009)

It is interesting to notice the difference between what we suspect, or perhaps even strongly believe, makes people tick and the mechanisms that really do influence and motivate people.


Examine your own behaviour and the things you say to make sure you are demonstrating the culture you wish to propagate.

Try to notice whether what you are doing and saying fits with what really works from the previous seven propositions. What could you do differently to increase your own positive impact on culture?

It can be very difficult to admit the way you are behaving and the things you are saying are not promoting the culture you want. It certainly was for me. Through honest self-examination, constructive feedback and support from colleagues it can be done.

Be honest. Be brave. Be bold.


A positive culture will emerge when the workplace allows people to achieve what they want to achieve while expressing who they are.

Maybe the answer isn’t to create a change but to allow change to unfold. I could have chosen a word other than ‘spark’ in the title of this piece. But by choosing it I mean to imply that culture change needn’t involve a prolonged and concerted effort. It could be far simpler than that.

Most people want to do a good job when they go to work. They want to work in a place that has a supportive, professional and friendly culture; they want what you want. Is that really so surprising?

That culture could emerge automatically if we:

  • Choose people whose values and attitudes are in tune with the culture we want.
  • Give those people things to do that are in tune with their values and beliefs, and with clear expectations of performance and quality that stretch, but do not overwhelm them.
  • Make sure the tools, processes and environment don’t get in the way of them achieving their goals.

Why stop there though? For thousands of years people have worked to live. They have had to. It is hardly surprising, then, that our corporate cultures have risen out of that mind set.

I wonder what would happen to corporate culture if we designed our work with a different mind set. What if we designed our work around the assumption that people no longer work to live, they live to work; that meaning and fulfilment are just as important as salary, perhaps even more so?

What if leaders were servants and people were more often trusted to find and do the right work because we had chosen and supported them well? Jidoka from the Toyota Production System has pointed in this direction for years.

What if people chose who to collaborate with and evaluated their own performance? What if the goal of management was not to manage people but to clear obstacles out of their way and make it easy for them to achieve?

What if, instead of people serving the organisation, the organisation served the people?


I hope you have found something here to create a spark.


James Brown – October 2017


Photo by Carlos Domínguez on Unsplash



Cialdini, R. B. (2003).Influence: Pearson New International Edition: Science and Practice.” Fifth Edition: Pearson. Extracted from:

Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D. and Vlaev, I. (2010). “MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy; The Practical Guide”. Cabinet Office / Institute for Government. Exracted from:

Drucker, P – unknown source although the quote ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is most often attributed to him.

Gruenert, S. and Whitaker, T. (2015) “School Culture Rewired”, ch. 3. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Pink, D.H. (2009) “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. Riverhead, New York. Extracted from:

Toyota Production System: Wikipedia entry . See also


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