Changing a Culture that is Deeply Entrenched

How do you change a culture that is deeply entrenched?

Written by Alex Butt, Managing Partner, Glides Consulting Partners (3 April, 2017)

image courtesy of  Ambro at

image courtesy of Ambro at

Recently, this question was asked of us. “In an organization with negative culture deeply entrenched, management finds it hard to trust and empower. It is a vicious cycle and how do you change things in this case?”

I’d like to dissect this question into three parts that requires addressing (1) “Organizations with negative culture deeply entrenched” (2) “Management finds it hard to trust and empower” and (3) Changing a vicious cycle.

 1. Changing an organizational culture to a desired one (Addressing a negative culture that is deeply entrenched)

Take an organization with negative culture deeply entrenched. An organization with a culture deeply entrenched drives the behaviors and actions of employees and leaders.  Culture is the most effective way to set the employees towards a single direction.  It is the individual leaders, managers and employees who create the culture of organization.  An individual who has influential power over others creates an experience that affects how other individuals and teams respond.  When this experience is repeated, it changes the way people think and act, which forms the informal culture of that group.  So, when we have culture that is negative, we can change it by reversing the process.  It is hard to change an entrenched culture as we need to repeat the experiences and consistently do it over a sustained period of time to remove the belief bias of individuals and team.  Changing negative or undesired culture is as difficult as creating a new culture.  The process to change are in 3 steps:

Step 1: Identify the undesired current culture (C1).  Identify the actions and beliefs

Step 2: Identify the desired culture (C2)

Step 3. Create the new experience, new actions and new beliefs required to shift from C1 to C2.

Change the Culture, Change the Game: the Breakthrough Strategy for Results, co-authored by Roger Connors, is a book for leaders looking to transform their organizational culture.

2. Building a culture where management trusts and empowers their people (Trusting and Empowering your People)

Through the process of identifying the desired culture (C2), clearly defined cultural beliefs statements to shift the culture will emerge. It then becomes easier for the management team to address the behaviors in the current culture (C1). For example, two clearly defined cultural beliefs in the desired culture (C2) may be “Trust Team” and “Empower Others”. Guided by clearly defined cultural beliefs statements like these 2 examples on trust and empowerment, the organization now has a clear direction to change their behaviors and beliefs.  Previously, managers could have been holding a personal belief (their own culture) resulting in them acting and showing trust in a manner that is perceived as the exact opposite.  A manager micro-managing a team could be interpreted as “not trusting team” while that manager had a genuine intention of helping the team succeed by ‘lending a helping hand’.  However, when the team defines “Empower Others” with specific list of desired actions (A2) actions for this C2 culture, then the behaviors are more explicit and misalignment to the C2 culture will be avoided.

3. Breaking a vicious cycle of a negative culture leading to lack of trust and empowerment by management

The vicious cycle seems like a helpless situation.  The good news is, it can be broken.  This requires an open feedback culture within the leadership team.  When we create a process that constantly inspects any current culture (C1) manifested by corresponding actions (A1), then intercept and address the actions immediately (we call it intervention), we can break the vicious cycle.  The first few A1 and C1 may be more difficult to call out.  It requires courage for individuals.  Leaders need courage to admit and see the reality in order to start the change.  Leaders also need feedback to open their blind-spots.  Some of you may say, “Without an environment of trust, how can leaders accept feedback openly?” Well, fortunately, feedback can be implemented as a formal process.  At first, the organizational leaders (in a less trusting environment) may feel uncomfortable to ask for and give feedback.  But with training and some change agents, such as champions and role models, we can start this cycle of open feedback.  Once the feedback tools and practice becomes more prevalent, the management and employees will start to be more open to the new culture. That’s when you see acceleration in this transformation.  Creating more momentum and traction will accelerate the transformation.  I have work with organizations that could take 12 months before seeing the acceleration due to a deeply entrenched legacy culture.  At the same time, I have recently worked with an organization who was able to create immediate momentum to see this acceleration within 1 month after embarking on this transformation exercise.  The key is the top leader (CEO) needs to be the champion of the change to speed it up. Plus there are change agents at 3 levels down from the CEO who are agents that keep that wheel turning.

Manage your culture, or your culture will manage you.  Good luck!

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Read more in this article, Managing Culture Change.

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