cover photo Reflect Blog
Ingo Kallenbach

The five cardinal errors in cultural change

In the wake of scandalous management practices, the concept of corporate culture is gaining in importance. Diagnoses of "lack of corporate culture" and "lack of leadership culture" are not just wake-up calls, but are directly related to the loss of value of companies. However, only very few organizations seem to succeed in achieving a sustainable cultural change.

What are the five cardinal mistakes that managers make when dealing with the challenge of cultural change?

We provide you with recommendations for action that enable sustainable success in cultural change.


Five mistakes that lead to failure in cultural change

1. Initiators underestimate the influence of actionism and culture blindness.

2. The management fails to create a sustainable commitment.

3. Managers deal half-heartedly with the lived culture.

4. The formulation of the cultural claim is unprofessional.

5. Bosses let others implement the cultural change.

If you take a closer look at the scope of the task of cultural turnaround, you will encounter a number of foreseeable difficulties. The realization that a regulation from above is not at all sufficient for cultural change has long since become common knowledge among managers. However, initiators have to keep learning that cultural change cannot be managed half-heartedly.

Whether they are a financial manager with an affinity for numbers, a design manager with a passion for technology or a sales director with a sales drive, they rely on minimally invasive measures with a short half-life. The hope for quick success outshines the knowledge that a sustainable strategy for change is indispensable. The failure of a cultural change can be traced back to five major sources of error that create an interdependent causal structure.

Error 1: Initiators underestimate the influence of actionism and culture blindness

Crucial for the success of cultural change is the competence of the responsible managers to manage the cultural change. At first glance, this insight seems trivial. But a closer look reveals that the question of this competence is not even asked. This is a serious mistake that unfolds its toxic effect in all phases of the change process.

What is the problem?

One can imagine the distribution of competence like an arena with several fields. Professional cultural designers should expect headwinds for cultural change from two directions:

- Managers who are inclined towards cultural activism only deal with the task if they consider it opportune or if their list of priorities just allows it.
- Bosses caught in culture blindness cannot gain anything from the elusive cultural variables such as behavioral reflection or values.

The risk of error, which exists even before the actual change begins, is that the initiators ignore the expected spread of competencies in the fields of the cultural arena. The consequence: They proceed from completely wrong assumptions regarding the change ability of the organization and the time requirement. Because of the uncertain foundation, measures miss their effect.

What helps?

First of all, it is important to draw an honest picture of the initial situation and the consequences: Cultural actionists will light straw fires that have no or even counterproductive effects on culture, except for short-term effects. Culture-blind people with their complete lack of understanding inhibit cultural change wherever they can.

Step two is to draw the right conclusions from the initial situation. Purposeful optimism or fast forward is of little help. It is more promising to develop skills such as "helping to understand", "enabling reflection", "providing insight" or "explaining connections". The managers responsible for change must be enabled to learn. This requires seriousness, depth and time.


Error 2: Management fails to create a sustainable commitment.

All experience shows that cultural design needs commitment. In order to master the task of cultural change, as many participants as possible must bring with them the special quality of affective commitment, i.e. the emotional connection to the task.

Types of Commitment

- Affective Commitment: People have an emotional connection to a task and really want to accomplish it.

- Calculative Commitment: The persons feel obliged to a task due to an external impulse.

- Fake commitment: The persons pretend to feel committed to a task because they feel pressured.

What is the problem?

Instead of a sustainable and stable commitment to grow, top management is satisfied with a fragile commitment base. It puts pressure on those involved instead of working with them. They only participate until they see their chance to get out of the change process.

Inadequate and fluctuating commitment creates counterproductive effects, such as a loss of interest even among managers who are willing to change or disappointment among employees who experience that only parts of the organization support the change. The failure of the cultural change is inevitable if affective commitment is lacking in top management, i.e. in the initiators of the cultural change themselves.

What helps?

Affective commitment must be created step by step, for example by

- Winning contributors for cultural change instead of being committed to service
- a common understanding of the object of change, supported by all, is developed: What exactly do we understand by "culture" in our company?
- the participants develop a common view of the importance of cultural design for the success of the company. The arguments for this should be easily comprehensible and convincing.


Error 3: Managers deal half-heartedly with the lived culture

If you want to change the corporate culture, you first have to look at the culture you want to leave behind. Why? For many, culture is an invisible, elusive construct. Without proper analysis, measures are nothing more than poking through the fog. Measures are only effective if they are based on reliable information about the culture currently lived.

What is the problem?

Progress cannot be identified without careful culture diagnosis. If there is no agreed point of reference for starting change, the illusion of change is fostered. What is not perceived can neither cause problems nor create benefits. Cultural Actionists can put the shovel to the wall with the excuse "Our previous culture wasn't all that bad". Culture-blind people lack the mirror and the confrontation with their blind spots.

A frequently observed mistake is to delegate the evaluation of culture to experts. The superiors give the lead out of their hands by setting up in the spectator box and leaving others to take over their own leadership role. Employees become skeptical and interpret the behavior of their bosses to mean that they are not serious about change. Further friction increases the imbalance: Managers are overburdened in interpreting and communicating the results. Or: Unpleasant analysis results disappear in the drawer.

What helps?

Culture evaluation is a management act and not a technical task for HR specialists or external consultants. The analysis work must be done by the management teams themselves, otherwise the employees will not follow them. Managers shape the culture and are therefore obliged to take responsibility for the analysis from A to Z. HR management and consultants can certainly contribute technical expertise and methodological support. This is precisely their task. But: Not they, but only the superiors themselves can change the culture in the company.

There are a number of tools for culture analysis. Storytelling or value discrepancy analysis are just two of the easy-to-use tools. If managers decide on more complex approaches, for example, an employee survey, then recourse to the technical expertise of specialists is advisable. In doing so, it is important to make sure that there is a clear distinction between the management responsibility of superiors and the technical implementation responsibility of experts.


Error 4: The formulation of the cultural claim is unprofessional

Concepts such as the company's mission statement or code of conduct are popular on the management floors. The popularity of these management tools correlates with the ineffectiveness they sometimes show. In the professional world, the tool itself is blamed for this. But this is wrong.

What is the problem?

The use of the tool mission statement in everyday management is reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon phrase: "A fool with a tool is still a fool. A tool is only as good as its user. Those in charge often find the development of the mission statement an annoying duty and therefore it is done half-heartedly. Sometimes it is even completely delegated, for example to focus teams or human resources management. Afterwards, the mission statement is approved and "pigeonholed" by the commissioning managers.

The concept thus loses its function as a framework for formulating the cultural claim, because managers send counterproductive accompanying messages to their employees: "The mission statement hangs on the wall, but no one is interested in it. In this way, managers lose their leadership effect and are no longer taken seriously in their role as initiators of the event, called cultural change.

What helps?

The mission statement concept is not ineffective per se. If it is properly developed and seriously applied, it will develop its potential for impact within the company. If the managers themselves become active by filling the mission statement with content together with their employees, it will also provide the hoped-for orientation. The mission statement achieves its important steering function when it is discussed, questioned and used as a mirror by the managers to continuously compare the desired corporate culture with the one lived in everyday life.

As an alternative to the static concept of a mission statement, managers have the option of dynamic cultural goal setting. If the creation of a sustainable cultural basis is successful, then cultural goals can be tackled at a more demanding level, for example with the concept of a "true team culture". If cultural professionalism leads to the desired results, then excellence goals such as that of an "agile culture of change" move into realistic reach.


Error 5: Bosses let others implement the cultural change

The real change in culture only takes place when the measures presented so far are followed by action. Managers forget this and tend to believe that others - i.e. the employees - should take care of the new culture. They misjudge their own contribution to anchoring the desired culture and evade responsibility for implementation.

The reasons for this fallacy are manifold. Two factors play a special role in cultural change because of their braking effect: managers fail to set an example or the learning processes are inadequate.

Failure in the role model role

Instead of living the change convincingly, managers leave it at rhetoric and lip service. They simply "forget" to implement the claim through their own convincing actions in their daily management routine. It is easier to demand change from the employees than to live it.

What helps?

It is important to understand: The culture is based on the top sanctioning power of the organizational unit, i.e. the superior. If the superior weakens in the fulfillment of the culture requirement, braking effects become immediately noticeable. The effect of the role model goes through channels such as positive reinforcement, imitation and social desirability. Managers should explore these connections. If superiors ignore their role model effect, the following applies: Forget about cultural change!

Weaving errors in the learning processes of managers

Learning is a key component of cultural change. Companies invest in the development of managers and thus generate positive and effective impulses. However, it can also be observed that many investments in leadership development fail almost without effect.

How can this be explained?

There are numerous reasons for this. For example: HR management acts decoupled from the line managers of the trainees because the bosses are not interested enough in the development of their employees or do not feel responsible at all. The leadership knowledge conveyed in the seminar room is not applied in everyday life because the learners receive little support from their superiors. Some bosses completely elude learning processes. The initiators of the cultural change, i.e. the top managers, are often among the learners who do not learn at all.

What helps?

Firstly: Managers should actively deal with the dangers of deflagration. Individual learning goals and measures should be carefully tailored to the cultural goals formulated. Important: The coordination is a management task of the superior, not of the personnel management

Secondly: Management says goodbye to entrenched paradigms. Cultural learning must be provided by all managers, from the board of directors to the group leader. Just because the board of directors is called "executive board" and is very busy, it does not know the tasks of cultural change better than others. With a little courage to be honest, even top managers will realize that they have just as little in-depth knowledge of the functioning of corporate culture from their training and career experience as their group leader in design or the master craftsman in production.



There are five options to address cultural change.

The simplest option is to carry the mantra of the indispensable cultural change in front of you instead of taking action. The option that makes the biggest impression on you is to infiltrate the claim of cultural change as a logo into your corporate communications. You choose the most common option by having a corporate mission statement developed while you turn your attention to more important things. If you feel that managers and employees lack expertise or time, you can make use of the convenient option of engaging internal or external consultants

The most productive, but also most costly option is to lead your employees into a participatory process of cultural design. You are not only available on call during the process, but you are also personally committed and take a convincing leadership role in all phases of cultural change.