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The WRONG way to change organisational culture

Wilhelm Crous - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

In the July/August 2019 edition of Harvard Business Review, new research from Gartner revealed companies spend an average $2,200 per employee a year on efforts to improve organisation culture. 

However, only 30% of Chief HR Officers reported a good return on that investment. Also, Gartner’s research shows that on average, 69% of employees don’t believe in the cultural goals set by their leaders, 87% don’t understand them, and 90% don’t behave in ways that align with them.

After Gartner surveyed and concluded interviews with 200 HR leaders at global companies, it identified three mistakes companies should avoid in order to change and improve culture:

1. Don’t use simple adjectives to describe culture. 

Because culture feels “squishy” and hard to describe, leaders tend to resort to a generic, overused set of adjectives. Culture are said to be high-performing, collaborative, innovative, customer-focussed, entrepreneurial, results-orientated, transparent, or trusting. Gartner studied how companies using these various buzzwords compared in terms of driving revenue goals and found no significant difference between them (meaning that none of the labels creates an advantage). Why? One reason could be that the chosen buzzword is often at odds with how the company actually operates. This causes what Bryan Kurey, Gartner’s managing vice president for research calls a say/do gap: Employees see leaders’ cultural aspirations as hypocritical. Instead of using a single adjective to describe the culture you aspire to, illustrate it by acknowledging an important tension. “The tension is about the intersection of the ideal and present realities and how those play out day to day”, Kurey says. Talking about creating a ‘culture of innovation’ might sound fanciful and out of touch if the business currently devotes 80% of its resources and personnel to existing product lines. The CEO should instead speak to the tension: “We support a culture of innovation while continuing to seek growth and profits from legacy businesses.”

2. Don’t measure culture with data alone. 

Because culture feels intangible, many companies depend on employee surveys when trying to quantify what frontline people think about it. Often the surveys over rely on measures of employee engagement. Firms also commonly look at turnover rates as an indication of culture and morale. But those numbers can provide false comfort. “The feedback gets sanitized at the leadership level, even if you’re not trying to do that,” Kurt says. “Data gets aggregated and averaged and becomes a little generic.” Gartner suggests that companies include open-response questions in their surveys and ensure that leaders see some of the raw feedback. Smart leaders also go beyond periodic surveys, providing an atmosphere of safety that allows employees to speak up at any time without fear of reprisal. Don’t miss our Change Management Seminar, taking place next week on the 23 October 2019 at the Radisson Blu Gautrain Hotel in Sandton. Ester Kruger, Change Programme Manager at Discovery will discuss how to create a culture of trust, and effective communication in your organisation

3. Don’t forget to alter policies to support cultural change. 

Companies might declare themselves to be customer-centric but clamp down on the expense account to let sales reps travel to meet customers face-to-face. “This is the area where leaders are least consistent—putting the operating model behind the culture,” Kurey says. To drive change, leaders must align what they say, how they behave, and how their companies operate in terms of processes, budgets, and policies. Many companies overlook the third item. Good leaders recognise that although aspirational talk about culture may originate in the C-suite, the actual culture manifests in cubicles and on shop floors far from top leaders’ view. That disconnect makes it essential that CEOs do more than talk a good game. “That’s the part of leadership people often miss - enabling your organisation to actually adopt the new culture you seek to have.”

To learn more about our Change Management Seminar, taking place on 23 October at the Radisson Blu Gautrain Hotel in Sandton – click here now. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to get insights from premier keynote speakers and industry influencers into what’s happening in the world of change management and the important role that culture plays in managing change.

You can download the brochure here to see the full programme or for more information contact, me: Busie Mhlanga-Mjimba on +2711 706 6009 or 


Gartner. (2019, July-August). IdeaWatch: New Research and Emerging Insights. Harvard Business Review, pp. 21-24.





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