Six Steps to Change a Culture

Published: June 6, 2017

Changing the culture of a workplace takes a long time. Basic science tells us that living things seek sameness. Even a loosened violin string will tighten itself back up until its new norm has been stabilized. The longer the history of broken morale, the harder it is to set and sustain a new mood. Unless the desired future is enforced consistently, old ways slip back into place. By tolerating unhealthy words and actions, you communicate permission for them to define the values of the group.

Commit to these six steps to repair and anchor a healthy workplace culture:

Step 1: Clarify Mission, Values, and Vision

When everyone agrees on the “what,” the “how,” and the “where,” you gain a checklist with which you can filter all future words and actions. Without this consensus, anything goes. Get clear about norms, roles, rules, and boundaries.

Step 2: Endorse Respectful Difference of Opinion

The richness of difference should be built into the norms. If everyone agrees to act like mature and responsible adults, constructive conflict has the potential to fuel exciting growth.

Step 3: Embrace Shared Accountability

Even if some members of the team can self-police their words and actions, a referee is often needed to remind those who slip that we all agreed to a respectful set of norms. Call yourself out when you say or do something that hurts the culture. Call your teammates out when you see it in others. Whether by accident or intent, ignoring regression sanctions the return to previous broken ways.

Step 4: Practice New Behaviors Collaboratively

Every time a collaboration that models agreed upon values takes place, a new root is sent down to anchor the organization. While initial efforts might begin awkwardly, repetition eventually makes respectful interchange normal.

Step 5: Celebrate Evidence of Change

Tell stories of success. Begin each staff meeting with a moment for mission. Describe an exchange with a coworker or client that illuminates the organization’s mission, values, and vision. Make it real by recognizing what has changed and rewarding courageous behavior.

Step 6: Adapt for Continuous Improvement

Avoid complacency. Improvement never means a job is complete. All relationships, teams, and organizations cycle through phases of growth. The successful elevation of a workplace culture creates a platform for the next level. Go from good to great. Move from great to greater. The cycle only ends when the team chooses to stop adapting.

What you tolerate you sanction. The words on the mission statement only have meaning if the actions of all teammates are aligned. Every workplace has a few disengaged employees. Don’t give them the power to define the culture.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.