How can Organizational Culture make a difference in Leading Change?

Are you frustrated about organizational change? I sure was! But then I started leading change based on culture. I worked with organizational culture – instead of against it. That made a difference! I’d like to share more about my work in culture & change – and show how culture can foster positive leadership and change while people engage and empower themselves. Ready to engage your organization around culture and change?

Are you leading change?

Let’s be honest: It’s not easy to lead successful change. We’ve all heard of the 70% failure rate of organizational change.

One of the reasons for failure is that change programs don’t align with the current culture.

Another reason is the industrial-age mindset regarding change: Change management has a linear worldview: reality can be planned for, and big change requires big efforts. Change is designed by an executive team (who orders the others what to change). It is rolled out top-down, creating resistance as expected because it deviates from “the way people do things around here”. Old-style change initiatives don’t make abstract values operational nor do they translate them into behavioral change. They don’t include and engage people to change.

Work WITH #culture in organizational change instead of against it Share on X

Even though this may be known in the circles of consultants and coaches (“Duh!”) many organizations still seem to cherish this mindset. Have you been asked to change an organization’s culture for them? Or are you required to deliver a precise schedule and budget and define outcomes: which goals will be reached by when? Exactly. This is what many clients still expect – more than I would like…

The number one obstacle to success for major change projects is employee resistance and the ineffective management of the people side of change – The Prosci Best Practices in Change Management Benchmarking Study (2009)

What if we let go of this old-style change management? Instead, let’s commit to leading change based on culture and the “people side” of change.

Change Leadership (instead of change management) means that organizations:

  • Embrace inclusiveness: have everyone contribute to practical change.
  • Embrace complexity: no rigid control but self-organization within boundaries.
  • Enjoy non-linearity: change one small habit at a time to create a lasting, different outcome.
  • Play with systems theory: entice a critical mass of people to change behaviors until the organization as a whole reaches a tipping point.
  • Are open to emergent qualities: discover opportunities that you couldn’t have foreseen or planned.

This may sound more complicated than it is. All these topics are covered in the Change Circles that you’ll read more about below.

The difference between change management and change leadership is key to success Share on X

Why consider Culture and Change Circles?

I started working with culture because I wanted to make a difference, not just a living. Culture can be a major roadblock to change: keeping people embedded in their comfortable habits. People in groups tend to copy, coach, and correct one another to keep things safe and the same. But you can also use this powerful copy mechanism in groups the other way around: to practice new ways of doing and thinking!
People are the key to successful organizational change because they have to change typical behaviors, beliefs and meanings, or nothing will change at all.

96% of people believe culture change is needed in their organization in some form, and 51% need a major culture overhaul – Booz & Company Survey

My approach to sustainable change is to engage all employees in small teams. Within these change circles, around ten people work on the “what” and the “how” of change while in the process they also discover the “who” they are. They take ownership of their part (instead of obeying top-down orders) and they benefit from peer support to DO change and stick with it (even when it’s tempting to go back to old habits). I’ll explain this further later on.

ocai-matrixChange: What?

To help people reach consensus on the “What” to Change, I often use the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI – developed by Cameron and Quinn) that quickly maps culture. The OCAI is a validated and easy survey that scores culture in a quantitative way. The outcome is a culture profile that shows the mixture of culture types in the current and desired situation.
Based on the Competing Values Framework, the OCAI maps four archetypes: the entrepreneurial, innovative Adhocracy culture, the people-oriented, friendly Clan Culture, the process-oriented, structured Hierarchy Culture and the results-oriented, competitive Market Culture. The culture types are easy to remember and help to raise awareness of values and human behaviors at work.
Of course, you can also use other tools to map the culture. (And, of course, not every needed change requires an official culture check).

After the OCAI survey, we get together in circles to add the qualitative information. People have a dialogue about the “Why and What” but also about the “How” of Change. They discover the typical beliefs and behaviors that make up current culture: they translate generalistic values into specific, daily behaviors, and underlying assumptions.
Together, we assess our future challenges and goals and determine which culture would be the most effective to reach those goals. The group discovers the crucial behaviors and beliefs that will make them succeed.
Now they know their What & Why: where they Are and where they want to Be and why they’ll start this journey of change. But how will they get there?

Change: How? Journey from A to B

Change Circles help people to change personal behaviors and support each other Share on X

A fascinating part is a puzzle of “how to change our daily habits” to help the organizational system change toward the preferred culture and outcome of change.
This HOW is different for each organization. Many clients organizations like to outsource this. “Just tell us what to do so we become more innovative”. “Give us a list of things to check and steps to follow.” Or: “Tell my employees to take ownership so this culture of complaints will cease.”
The real challenge is to trace those particular details that will make a difference in your organizational system. An expert consultant can’t tell you. But the insiders in the organizational system have tacit or subconscious knowledge. They can discover the viral habits, the subtleties of the organization, the tipping point – if you engage them in change circles. For that to happen, you need an excellent facilitator who guides the group process. Not an expert on some topic but an expert in people and group dynamics. If the group “flows” you’ll solve that fascinating puzzle and find the viral behavior that could spread and make a difference if the majority in the organization did it…. Bringing about real change.

culture change workshopChange: Who? Engage in circles

Even if a CEO has a clear idea of the What and How of change, she can’t order the others to change. People need to see it for themselves, commit to the change, or they might not do it.

Worldwide, 13% of employees are engaged – Gallup Survey

We need people to take ownership of changing crucial behaviors. Change circles of 10 are small enough to foster dialogue, take the time to solve obstacles or reflect on objections. They enhance commitment because no one can hide in a small team. Small circles work with peer support; once trust is secured. If you don’t agree, your coworkers will notice. There’s no hiding in a large audience while the CEO gives a speech on stage. There is no secretive criticizing because, in a circle, people talk to each other, not about each other.

A seasoned leader, coach, or consultant can facilitate this process. If a change circle works well – the ten people in the group will know more than one. Together, they solve the how-to puzzle – while eliminating obstacles, influencing some people’s objections and thus, together, changing beliefs. They commit to the change while they support each other to do it and change habits over time. Change circles may take more time up front, but they yield more results in the end.

change-circleCultures of positive leadership and kindness?

If you’d like to increase your positive impact at work, learning more about culture is very insightful. Change Circles are a great way to energize, engage, and empower people. You can use them to enhance a culture of kindness and grow positive (self-)leadership. But even without a change project and change circles, learning to “see” culture, group dynamics, beliefs, and behaviors, is helpful for anyone wishing to make a difference.

This culture-based approach to Change Leadership is covered in the video training “Leading Successful Change”. It offers five inspirational lectures stuffed with real examples and tips to apply. The videos were recorded during my workshop based on my book “Organizational Culture Change: Unleash your Organization’s Potential in Circles of 10”.

This 4-hour video training is part of my video deal that offers 2 video courses on culture. This approach includes everyone in Change Circles and engages them in developing the change and new behaviors that will work for them. Influence your culture so people may thrive instead of merely survive.

We explore these questions:

  • Why does Organizational Change often fail – and how does it succeed?
  • What is Organizational Culture and why does it matter in Change?
  • How to use the Competing Values Framework in Change?
  • How to guide Change in Change Circles?
  • How to utilize Viral Change and Positive Leadership?
  • How to focus on personal behaviors and support in the Change Circle?

The video training might open your eyes to how people do things at work and relate to each other, and why that matters if you aim for positive change.

If you’d like to aim for a more positive culture specifically, please consider joining the Positive Culture Academy. Positive cultures are proven to be more productive.

Consider Change Leadership that works with Culture instead of against it. Organizational culture makes a difference in leading change because it helps to focus on the “people side” of things. You can depart from current culture and start working with its good things and then, together, change what is needed. That works much better than simply ignoring culture or implying that current culture is all wrong while you roll out a pre-designed change management program. Instead, show some change leadership by engaging people and let them surprise you.

Please add your experiences with change leadership in the comments.

  • What works well, in your experience?
  • How have you helped your (client’s) team or organization with positive change?

Photo of dialogue team by Dreamfish
Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this blog and

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    This is the best training I have received in the last 20 years of my career. I have being doing change management in organizations for last 13 years but the insight provided in this training has opened my world view and has put a structure to such a vast and complicated topic on understanding organization culture. I would highly recommend this training to all individuals who take pride in associating themselves as change agents and who want to make a contribution to the society by helping organizations get to the next level. Not only will you learn a lot from this video training but also in the process realize meaningful purpose for yourself that could be prove to be life changing experience.

    Sumeet Kumar, Chief Operating Officer, Timelined Consulting Inc., OCAI Consultant, Canada

  2. Marcella Bremer

    Thank you, Sumeet! I’m glad to hear that this video training proved so valuable to you! I’m honored 🙂

  3. Stan Horwitz

    Another great article from a Change Leader. Thank you. Indeed change as well as change of and in culture is a top down, bottom up flow. It’s key to learn agility as before the change has changed its changed again in disruptive complex change. Thanks for always sharing

    1. Leela

      Yes indeed I totally agree it is much appropriate in order to achieve positive outcome it is always good to work with the organizational culture rather than against it.

  4. Saira Khan

    Another informative article that shares great tips on change leadership. Embracing inclusiveness & complexity, playing with systems thinking & being receptive to emergent qualities are refreshing ideas in an all too jaded world. The quotation, “influence your culture so people may thrive instead of merely survive”, was the highlight of this piece for me….thanks for sharing….!

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Thank you for your feedback, Saira. It’s great to hear that this piece is inspiring and I hope we’ll inspire many more people to thrive at work 🙂 Let’s stop the suffering.

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