You can't change the culture of an organisation - opinion

Is it possible to change a firm's culture? It's harder than it looks.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2016

Try this experiment. For six months, ban the use of the word 'culture' in your organisation. (The only exception is for pharmaceutical companies, which may have cultures so long as they live in Petri dishes.)

Instead of 'culture', say 'the collection of habits and beliefs that determine how we do things around here'. This is not a controversial redefinition, but it has remarkable results. How do you feel when someone says 'we need to change the culture'? It seems like a huge task, like chipping away at an iron-hard granite monolith.

But if you say 'we need to change habits and beliefs', that invites the question: 'All of them, or just some?' The answer, of course, is 'just some'. Progress, already! We have broken the task down into more manageable parts. And we know how to change habits and beliefs.

The other reason for avoiding 'culture' is that the word covers a multitude of different things, some of them deserving of respect, others not. We rightly try to understand and respect different national, ethnic and religious traditions. But organisational 'cultures' are more instrumental. They either help the organisation achieve its goals or they do not. If not, they may be dysfunctional, or simply outdated.

An organisation that has historically worked in a stable and predictable environment may have developed a habit of risk aversion that has served it well. But if the environment is stable and predictable no longer, then that risk aversion can become dangerous and needs to be addressed.

At its most degenerate, saying 'that's not in our culture' is simply a way of giving spurious authority to 'we don't want to do that'. Asking someone to take more sensible risks or listen more to customers is not the same thing as offering the rabbi a bacon sandwich.

Words have power. They determine what we think, what we notice, and what we believe right or possible and thus what we do. It may seem strange that a simple change of vocabulary could make such a difference, but give it a try.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter at

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