The Role of Habit in Shifting Organisational Culture

I probably have more questions than answers on this topic, which is an annoying habit of mine that I’m trying to break. In the meantime, here are four commonly asked questions (and answers) regarding what it takes to identify both good and bad habits—and how your reaction to those habits can shift organizational behaviour and affect positive change within your organisation…

Can’t I just tell people what they’re doing wrong?
My working life is spent trying to improve organisations through their culture; the behaviour of their people, both leaders and employees. Telling people they need to change isn’t particularly realistic or helpful. People generally have more energy for positive endeavours rather than negative ones like trying to change our bad habits. Don’t get me wrong, many organisations are full of bad habits, but focusing on them is not going make a difference. It’s better to focus on the important things to do well and why they will benefit people.

So, I just need to tell people what the right thing to do is?
Habits are difficult to change. Habits fit into what social psychologists refers to as our schema, the protocols for how we make sense of the world. We have one for everything we do, and because they are embedded in an emotional part of our brains, they tend not to respond to logic very well. Whilst they are very resistant to change, they can be altered if something better becomes available and we can’t afford not to use it. Look for those opportunities. Think Dick Fosbury setting a new Olympic record with the Fosbury Flop, changing every high jumper’s technique overnight. Think Uber changing the way we use cabs and squarely questioning the need for car ownership.

How do I tackle something so big?
Organisations that try to tackle the culture all at once inevitably run out of steam, so take a leaf out of Leandro Herrero’s Viral Change approach and focus on creating a few, non-negotiable habits and using the success of these to move on to the next set. Organisations trying to change their entire culture at once forget that they have built very successful businesses on the strength of the way they work and the things they do well. Focusing on the few key things that made your company great is a good place to start.

But how can I convince people to care?
Things don’t get done by people unless there is some intrinsic or extrinsic value in it.

In the 1980s, Dannemiller created an equation for organisational change: Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Concrete Step > Resistance. Basically she is saying that there has to be a good reason to change and we need to be able to see the value and how we are going to get to that value. People need to feel that their new habits are not only meaningful but also make them feel good. BJ Fogg of Stanford University encourages people to start small and build up a behaviour with a self-celebration every time you complete the new behaviour because it helps you to repeat it and create a new habit.

So what does it all mean for creating effective habits in organisations?
1. Think small, be positive
– begin with only the two or three priorities where new, useful habits will make the most impact within your business. Work hard to create hope, to make it fun and meaningful to your leaders and all of your people.

2. Starting is easy, keeping it going is hard – use creative communications and experiences to co-create and introduce the new habits. But don’t forget to do the work upfront to make sure Leadership understands the business impact and cares about what happens to the habit over time, promoting, praising and rewarding the desired behaviours in employees.

3. You need to see visible results – you have to track the impact of the new habits, linking them to Key Performance Indicators that are respected in the business. It’s not always easy, but you’ve got to prove that the new habits are driving business success.

In short, if you want to achieve your desired culture: make the habit, don’t try to break it.


Building an Authentic Culture: 8 Attributes That Crack the Code


Organizational culture is the result of what employees see, hear, do and believe. It unites people around a shared mission and goal, creating a sense of meaning around relationships, work and achievement in the workplace. Employees are an organization’s most important asset, and therefore developing an authentic culture is key to the success of your business.

With this in mind, Ketchum Change conducted a bench-marking study across six industries with seven companies who have highly distinctive cultures (and are leaders in their field) to better understand how strong cultures are formed. Unsurprisingly, we found that organizations with high-performing and authentic cultures are those whose culture matches its brand – where the external experience for customers and consumers is complementary to the internal experience for employees. The following eight attributes emerged as factors leading to an authentic culture.

  1. Walk the talk
    Encourage leaders to visibly demonstrate company culture through their words and actions. Employees look to leaders as an example of how to behave in line with company culture and values.
  2. Let employees shape it
    Provide opportunities for employees to co-create your organizational culture by gathering feedback, empowering culture ambassadors and letting them drive programming.
  3. Open up
    Take down walls – literally and figuratively. Encourage people to connect across boundaries and to collaborate and communicate openly to promote the sharing of knowledge and ideas. Enable this way of working with supporting systems, processes and technology that make it possible.
  4. Put people first
    Emphasize employee programming, development and engagement. Don’t forget that your employees are your most valuable asset.
  5. Talk it out
    Enable communication avenues with employees to share organizational strategy, direction and goals. Make it a dialogue.
  6. Live your values
    Bring your values to life through internal communications, performance evaluation and employee programs. Think about what symbols in the organization really show what you believe in.
  7. Hire and cultivate desired talent
    Define the criteria that will attract the right talent to build your culture; make sure those same aspects are imprinted in recruiting and on-boarding materials.
  8. Connect internal with external
    The boundary between your team and the outside world is more porous than ever. To keep up with the pace of change going on in the world around you, you must use the outside world as a source of inspiration for your team.

The eighth attributes above are synthesized in an infographic you can download here.


So what does it take to start making this happen? First you want to scan the culture to audit the current state environment. Where are there big opportunities to shift behaviors to better align with these success factors? Next you want to clearly define the vision for your evolved culture. How can you involve employees through engaging platforms to co-create the vision? Then you’ll want to create a road map for how you’ll get there, identifying the high-value near, medium and long-term activities.

Think about your organization. Where are you going and what do you need from employees to get there? Although you may feel your organization’s culture is set in its ways, it is still malleable and an evolving culture is essential to staying relevant. While it will likely always have the same core, there are many things you can do to help it take on a different shape by being liquid in a constantly changing environment and focusing on what is special and unique about your organization. By creating a compelling brand experience, engaging employees and aligning your culture with these eight attributes, you will set your organization up for success and be positioned to lead in the marketplace.