Training your way to culture change?

Think again.


Published on: July 2023

Written by: Andrew Atkins

How many times have you and your colleagues on the leadership team grappled with a culture problem?

The answer may not be obvious at first. Here are a few ways we see companies taking on culture change, often under the guise of a different name:

  • Adopting and socializing a new customer-first go-to-market strategy
  • Shifting from working heads-down in silos to formal, cross-functional collaboration
  • Turning the tide to incite more inclusive behaviors

When starting to make these shifts, the go-to answer is often: “Let’s talk to HR – maybe we can get some training so people will start doing things differently?” And HR responds with, “Great – let’s go!”

Then, months go by, and the needle hasn’t moved. This leaves you and your organization right back where you started. Despite the plethora of online courses, internal seminars, and team sessions available, you are frustrated by the lack of change. What gives?

Training individuals is not the answer. While training is critical for people to learn new things, it is not a comprehensive culture fix. Training alone is insufficient to change culture across the organization.

Research conducted by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn from University of Michigan’s Ross Business School, and also by Edgar Schein from MIT’s Sloan School of Management has shown that effective culture change happens in groups because group norms, organizational mindsets, and team behaviors overpower individual desires. Just as strategic initiatives are born from a shared organizational vision, culture also cascades from collectively held mindsets, behaviors, and values.

When companies focus on individual development efforts to reinforce the culture they aspire to embody, they miss their biggest point of leverage. Changing your culture requires mobilizing both individuals and the collective behind a shared sense of urgency and responsibility.

Moving beyond the HR talent lens to deliver a culture shift

When making organizational changes, of course HR needs to be involved. However, to successfully enable culture shift, you need to go beyond training and address several other elements, such as: process engineering, information access, governance, and decision making, which can all be affected by culture change. If you are not thinking about these (and more), you are training your way to culture change.

To mobilize your organization and bring your culture shift to life, consider these three elements:

1. Cultural assessment and definition—creating the foundation for change

The first step in shifting your organizational culture is to ground yourself in the current one. If you don’t have a deep understanding of your existing culture, you may miss opportunities to identify and address major cultural roadblocks that will hinder your future state. You also might overlook key cultural strengths that you could leverage to propel the organization forward. (To learn more about cultural assessment, check out this white paper.)

Assessing your current culture at the following four levels will enable you to uncover the nuances, behaviors, systems, and mindsets necessary to get you where you need to go:

  • Individual – relationship to self and others
  • Team – working in groups
  • Organization – what drives action
  • Business environment/context – view of change

When organizations lean on training as a band-aid, they miss the opportunity to toggle other systemic elements that profoundly impact culture, such as compensation alignment, process engineering, access to information, and feedback, among others.

Here are a few game-changing questions that leaders can ask to define and build toward a strong culture:

  • How can we build momentum towards the desired business results?
  • What processes and systems are enabling or defeating the change?
  • Are the current performance management systems getting us where we need to go?
  • Am I assessing my team on the right capabilities?

2. Cultural scaling—creating alignment, processes, and systems

While shaping culture at the individual level is easier, people seldom produce their best work in siloes. To change culture, your organization must change the way people work in teams. This element, which can be done in concert with individual training, is about aligning team processes and embedding them in the organization.

Changes in team effectiveness require supporting systems. To ensure your systems are aligned to your organization’s cultural vision, ask these two critical questions:

  • Do the current talent lifecycle activities, organizational capabilities, and work processes across your business support the changes you hope to see?
  • Which legacy systems and processes could derail the culture change you seek?

When leveraged correctly, processes and systems should create boundaries and provide guardrails that encourage culturally constructive behaviors, mindsets, and problem-solving methods.

3. Individual training—activating individuals to support the shift
The third element of shifting the culture is where training comes into play: activating individuals to do things differently. When asking HR to take the lead on training, consider these two aspects to ensure you are readying the whole organization for the culture shift you seek:

  • Change-ready leadership to help address individual readiness. In addition to broader efforts to assess, define, and scale organizational systems and capabilities that enable alignment and foster culture, it is critical to evaluate and enable individual readiness. Shifting the culture is a burden shared by not only business leaders and CHROs, but also by those leading talent management and leadership development who are responsible for preparing individual leaders.
  • Identify behavior shifts and lead accordingly. Change-ready leaders prioritize enduring behavioral shifts over “check-the-box” or surface level ones. When it comes to culture, quick fixes are often the enemy. Change-ready leaders also hold individuals accountable through feedback and by example. Leaders who model the behaviors they wish from their teams build trust and gain buy-in when it matters most. This might include challenging actions and decisions such as encouraging those who prefer not to shift their current behaviors to move on from the organization.

Organizational culture is a living, breathing, intangible thing. Just like a brand, we know it and feel it daily, despite its intangibility. Business leaders, you have the power to ignite the change you seek by leveraging assessment and definition, scaling, and individual training. Over time, these efforts will produce new behaviors and ways of working, ultimately creating the new organizational culture and a long-lasting legacy for your organization.

  1. Cameron, Kim S., and Robert E. Quinn (2011). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken.
  2. Schein, E.H. (2010) Organizational Culture and Leadership. Vol. 2, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken.

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