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Turning the Ship Around: A Guide to Changing Workplace Culture

Chad Brooks
Chad Brooks

People get stuck in their ways and often respond harshly to sudden calls for change. However, this resistance to change may be what has led the company astray in the first place.

As someone in a position of leadership, it’s up to you to effectively facilitate sustainable change that allows each employee to flourish and succeed.

The major challenge of culture change

The idea of changing workplace culture may sound simple to someone who’s never been faced with the task before. But as anyone with experience knows, it’s a massive challenge.

In a 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review, authors Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley referenced a case study involving the health insurance giant Aetna and the struggles it endured throughout the early 2000s. Losing roughly $1 million a day, company executives realized they had a major problem on their hands—and it started with poor workplace culture. Understanding this, they decided it was time to make some very fundamental changes.

What they didn’t realize was that you can’t trade in an existing culture like it’s a used car.

“Unfortunately, it can feel like a millstone when a company is trying to push through a significant change—a merger, for instance, or a turnaround,” the Harvard Business Review article reads. “Cultural inclinations are well entrenched, for good or bad. But it’s possible to draw on the positive aspects of culture, turning them to your advantage and offset some of the negative aspects as you go. This approach makes change far easier to implement.”

Ultimately, Aetna was able to shift the corporate culture and save face, but it took lots of time and patience. While your business may not be losing millions of dollars per month, it can sure feel like it at times.

Whether it’s widespread negativity, an overt disregard for company rules, or a lack of effort from employees, there are certain negative aspects of workplace culture that can destroy a business from the inside out. It’s your job to assess the problem, implement strategies that address the problem, and position your organization for a recovery.

5 Tips for Creating Sustainable Change

Understanding that each business, culture, and person is unique in their own rights, here are a few tips for creating sustainable change in the workplace:

1. Consider the individual.

While your goal is to change the culture of an entire business or entity, you have to narrow your focus to a much more granular level. It’s important to start with the individuals in the company and move from there. After all, if the people within an organization don’t change, the company itself can never change.

If you ask Dr. Jonathan Kirschner, CEO of executive coaching firm AIIR Consulting, you’ll soon realize that it’s not the change that’s difficult for people, but sustaining that change. “The greatest challenge from a coaching perspective is the fact that change is quite easy, but sustainable change is quite hard,” he writes. “Anyone who has tried to eliminate a bad habit or modify an unwanted behavior is aware of this truth.”

It’s important to understand this from the start. If you know that change occurs on an individual basis, and that sustaining that change is the key to long-term success, you’ll be able to develop a much better strategy.

2. Make the right hiring/firing decisions.

The biggest key to changing culture is eliminating toxic employees and infusing the business with the right talent. Unfortunately, this is also the hardest thing to do. Your first step is to sit down with existing employees and determine who has to be fired. Red flags that someone isn’t right for your new culture include laziness, unwillingness to change, failure to own up to mistakes, and an inability to accept constructive criticism.

However, if you’re going to let employees go, you have to be sure that you can find better replacements that align with your corporate values. contributor Micah Solomon likes to say, “You need to go overboard with the onboard.” In other words, focus on the big picture details of the hiring and recruiting process, not the insignificant things like specific language in the job description.

3. Set short-term goals.

There’s something to be said about patiently waiting for long-term change to unfold, but you have to implement short-term goals if you want to see steady, consistent change. Gather your leadership team and develop a list of specific, tangible changes you want to see in the workplace culture. Examples include showing up on time, having lower-level employees seek out more responsibilities, fostering creativity, etc.

Then you can begin to develop specific timetables for attacking these goals. Instead of trying to juggle multiple changes at once, take them one at a time. Start by developing new rules that encourage punctuality. Once that’s no longer an issue, focus on motivating lower-level employees. Once that ball is rolling, think about how you can encourage across-the-board creativity and innovation. As you’ll see, these short-term goals build on each other and ultimately push your organization to long-term, sustainable change.

4. Give employees a chance to be heard.

Regardless of how well you think you know your employees, you can’t really know what they’re thinking about or how they’re feeling without asking. There’s such a gap between employees and the executive leadership team in most companies that it’s unrealistic to assume everyone is on the same page.

Sit down and discuss the culture of the workplace with each individual in the organization. Ask them what they’d change, what they like, and what they feel like is holding them back from accomplishing more. Not only does this listening exercise show employees that you care about them, but it also gives you valuable insights into what’s happening on the ground level.

5. Follow through with promises (good and bad).

Creating sustainable behavioral change means you’ll have to set boundaries and make promises. For example, if the tardiness of your employees is a serious problem, you may threaten to dock pay for every minute an employee is late. If you threaten to do this, you have to follow through.

Or, you may choose positive reinforcement in which you promise to reward employees with an extra day off for every 20-consecutive days they arrive early. Whether it’s negative or positive reinforcement, you must be prepared to follow through with the promises you make.

Focus on the long-term goal

Creating sustainable change in a company that’s entrenched in its ways is no small feat. In fact, it’s an astronomical challenge. However, it can be done. Just take the aforementioned Aetna case study as an example. Give the leadership team credit for identifying the problems and addressing them head-on. It took time, but Aetna eventually returned to its former glory and is once again viewed as a healthy, profitable company.

Using these five tips, you can change your workplace culture. Just remember to focus on the individual, not the process. Real change starts with people. Hire the right ones, fire the bad ones, and encourage everyone from the secretary to the CEO to work for big picture goals.

Image Credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock
Chad Brooks
Chad Brooks
Staff Writer
Chad Brooks is a writer and editor with more than 20 years of media of experience. He has been with Business News Daily and for the past decade, having written and edited content focused specifically on small businesses and entrepreneurship. Chad spearheads coverage of small business communication services, including business phone systems, video conferencing services and conference call solutions. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post,,, Live Science, IT Tech News Daily, Tech News Daily, Security News Daily and Laptop Mag. Chad's first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014.