3 Challenges Human Resources Directors Face When Changing Cultures

At a recent workshop I conducted with Human Resource Directors, they were all moaning about how challenging it was to change a culture, having been asked by their leadership teams (often the CEO) to take on the role of culture change agents. They were now tasked with shifting the core values, beliefs and behaviors that were the company’s hallmarks yesterday but that weren’t going to work tomorrow.

As they all shared, when HR directors are asked to change their organization’s culture, they tend to zero in on the things that are most familiar to them. Common mistakes include: focusing on salaries and promotional rewards, discussing hiring practices and shifting onboarding methods. Yet, they know culture change is more complex than just managing the reward and recognition system. 

Significantly, what bubbled up during the workshop were three major concerns facing culture change that need to be re-thought:

  1. Changing practices without changing values. Leaders often create new programs or policies without attempting to change the underlying beliefs that guide individual choices. Employees and supervisors who don’t believe in the change will at best, not support it, and at worst, undermine it. Indeed, if delivered by directive, the desired culture change might simply turn into behaviors supported by the wrong beliefs. The language used, words spoken and body language employed are all essential parts of the culture. This is a process of behavior modification and culture change that needs a new visualization or story to help employees really see what the new culture is supposed to be.
  2. Roles can change without changing the person. The changes which leadership is calling for will require new metaphors and different types of mentoring and coaching. In many ways, culture change is a lot like theater. Employees have always performed a particular role in a specific play—say, Macbeth. Now they are being asked to play a new role in a new theatrical production, maybe Hamlet. But they don’t know the script. They have no director to coach them. They are still playing on the same stage, often in the same role. On top of that, they probably have very little rehearsal time before going “live.” Plus, they will need “hooray” or applause so they know their new roles were performed as expected—maybe even with room for improvisation so they can add their own personal style to the performance. 

  3. Talking the talk but never walking the walk. There are a lot of leaders who like to tell their employees how everything must change, evoking a new business model in their speeches and pep talks, and then they go back to their offices and do what they have always done. We worked with one CEO who reluctantly changed but insisted his employees all embrace the new systems and behaviors he wanted. They were to become more collaborative and innovative. Only, he was neither. But he was good at directing and demanding.

This is a common problem where people confuse “espoused” values with underlying values. Leaders often develop and publish new values, but forget to work on changing their own beliefs about how the world works.

An important question: If culture trumps strategy, who should be in charge of managing that culture and changing it?

To say it is the responsibility of the entire organization is too broad and unwieldy. To place it in the C-suite is probably correct but it’s asking too much for those in leadership positions to focus on culture (and usually they are  unskilled in changing a culture).

So who does that leave? There are those, of course, who say “run the business and culture will follow.” In fact, the April 2016 Harvard Business Review had a great article championing that approach. As a corporate anthropologist, I would suggest that the process is more complex and integrated. It’s hard to grow a new company when the old values, beliefs and behaviors still prevail.

The better solution is for someone to guide employees as they constructively adapt their values, beliefs and behaviors to fit into leadership’s new processes—and for leadership to participate in this adapting, right alongside the rank and file. 

For any corporate culture change to take hold, leadership has to understand what the company’s culture is today and what it should be in the future.

They also need to determine what elements of the culture should be retained and which should be modified. Just imagine what heights a company could reach if the entire staff, together, could change the culture into they want it to become. Then they could work together to build the new, but realizing that behavior and belief modification is neither fun nor easy.

Each time I meet an HR director who has been directed by the CEO to make the company culture more innovative, I cringe. As they do. What will be more innovation? How will it not become chaotic? What does the CEO really mean?

So is culture change really possible when led by Human Resources?

Yes. But not by accident.

  • Managers at every level throughout an organization need to be trained how to visualize a new culture and adapt their staff’s behavior to “live” it.
  • Employees need to be trained so they will have the skills to achieve the results.
  • Small wins should be celebrated (symbolic changes, no matter how slight) and people moved forward in teams.
  • Most importantly, leadership is making the undesirable desirable—so it is imperative that they change their behaviors too to show the way.

Want a culture change process that will actually succeed?

 Here is some additional reading that explains this concept of change more in-depth:

10 Steps to Change Your Corporate Culture

At SAMC, we help organizations change, grow and thrive in the midst of today’s changing times. We excel at helping companies map out and then achieve true, lasting, measurable culture change that fuels growth and longevity. If this might be of interest to you, we would like to offer you a free consultation. Please contact us! Another great resource for really understanding culture change is my new book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights.” Pick up your copy today!


Andi Simon, Ph.D.

President, Simon Associates Management Consultants