Resource Development Associates

Changing Organizational Culture

By Patricia Marrone Bennett, Ph.D.

Organizational culture is the embodied values, principles, and practices underlying the social fabric of a business, agency, or any organization. Culture permeates our actions and connects stakeholders to each other and to the organization’s purpose, people, and processes. Positive and high functioning organizational cultures promote caring, inclusiveness, trust, and effective communication among all team members and stakeholders.

Those of us who work with large government agencies often observe the ill effects of cultures that do not reflect trust and effective communications, as well as practices that do not serve the best interests of stakeholders. These organizations often appear to be trapped in time; despite good intentions and genuine efforts to improve processes and outcomes, they become quickly outdated, ineffective, and sometimes even irrelevant.

However, let us not be too hasty with our judgements. It is much more difficult to change organizational culture than to change a system, method, or process. There is a lag time (often years) between when an organization institutes changes and when the effects of those changes are experienced and influence the culture. In fact, it is common for organizations to improve their bottom lines (e.g. mission outcomes, fiscal sustainability, employee wellbeing) while still having negative or dysfunctional cultures.

Humans perceive the world through the lens of their previous experiences. In our day-to-day interactions, we see and experience largely what we have grown accustomed to seeing and experiencing. We trust what we know even if we judge what we know to be lacking. Consequently, when large scale organizational change efforts occur, stakeholders often do not perceive the intended changes. This can be particularly frustrating for those who are working hard to improve the cultures of complex organizations like large government agencies.

People engaged in organizational culture change efforts must accept the inevitable delay in impact, recognition, and appreciation. With consistent consciousness and long-term commitment, it is possible to build and maintain a positive and effective organizational culture.

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