The 3 Levels of Change Required to Shift Culture

Have you ever wondered why the changes you tried to bring to your organization were not successful? Maybe it was simply because you missed a level of change required. To be effective, change must happen simultaneously at the organizational, team, and individual levels. This applies to any kind of change but is particularly important in the case of shifting culture.

1. Organizational level

This is the level that most organizations are comfortable with and the one that, consequently, tends to be focused on. In fact, I have seen many businesses just try to work at that level. Working on change at the organizational level is about systems and processes. One of my clients wanted to become more customer-centric and decided to implement a Customer Relationship Management system. Another had identified a need for increased empowerment: they changed their operating model.

This level of change is also about the symbols the organization chooses (consciously or not) to send a message about what is valued in the workplace. I recently helped an organization select the collective KPIs it had decided to introduce to foster collaboration, when until now employees had only had individual KPIs.

Organizations love working at that level because they are familiar with it – this is the nature of most of their daily interactions. They believe that it is easier and faster than working on the other two levels. You only need to look at the cost and time of some of those system changes to know that nothing could be further from the truth.

In shifting culture, this level of change is about ensuring your systems and symbols are aligned with the culture you are trying to create. It is also about the culture narrative you are using to explain to your people why the change is needed, what it feels and looks like, what is expected of them, and how they will benefit from the change. Working on this level of change is indispensable, but it is not the only one.

2. Team level

For many years I fell into the common trap of forgetting to work at this level of change or making it a lesser priority. I could not have been more wrong. Kurt Lewin said, “The immediate social group is the greatest determinant of behavior.” What this means is that you need every team in the business to change if you want the change to take hold. Because the team are the people you interact with the most, it is with them first that you can practice changing behaviors. Your team members can observe you in action and give you recognition and feedback. They can let you know whether you are heading in the right direction or not. They are the easiest pressure point for you to start behaving according to the new norm.

“Teams that find the right kinds of practices and reinforce them, time and again, by insisting on following them, have greater influence and creativity.”
~Jon Katzenbach

To embrace the change, the team needs to discuss the purpose of the change and what it looks like for them. It needs to look at its own style: Are they constructive enough or too reactive? Do they compete with each other or avoid the hard discussions? Do they show care for each other? Do they trust one another? With a measure of the gap (for example through a behavioral measurement tool), the team will be able to flex towards the right behavioral standards. Try to engineer “aha” moments in teams, because everyone experiencing the moments together will create a catalyst for change. What this means, practically, is that your change intervention needs a team focus during the journey. Of course, this starts at the top, with the executive team initiating the process. You can then cascade down the experience to other levels.

3. Individual level

I have kept the most important level of change for last. Without individual change, there is no change. Cultural transformation starts with personal transformation. In other words, culture change is the sum of all the individual changes that are happening in the organization. This is the level that many businesses shy away from because they feel it is too difficult, too slow, or too confronting.

“Culture transformation starts with personal transformation.”
~Larry Senn

Many changes that have happened to us as individuals are the result of a catalyst, something we’ve experienced: a health scare, a failure in a project, or exposure to different data. These events trigger a sustainable shift at the BE level (what lies under the surface of the water in the iceberg model), which in turn underpins a shift in behavior. This means two things in regard to culture change. First, it means that it is best to build a personal experience for employees that will allow them to change quickly. It also means that you need to create space for individuals to reflect on themselves, starting with management layers. A great tool for this is a behavioral measurement instrument that involves a 360-degree measure. This is often enough to create the trigger for change. What is their dominant personal style? What are the beliefs and assumptions they hold true and that drive them to display current behaviors? Which strengths can they use to shift their less productive styles?

This level is the one that will make change sustainable in the long term. It is also often the one that people remember for life. In actioning it, you are not only changing the organization for the better, you are also changing lives.

In summary

What level of change should you start with? Truth be told, the three levels are required and often at the same time. If not, you run the risk of sending contradicting messages about what is important. People will be confused, and the change process weakened. Without individual change, nothing will happen. So, start with the top of the organization, then cascade down to other levels of management while you are implementing system changes, and bring in the team element as you progress.

Have you experienced any of the three levels of change in a similar way? Do you have a different point of view? If you would like to share a comment on social media, feel free to use the LinkedIn or Twitter buttons below. In advance, many thanks.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

About the Author

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Jerome Parisse-Brassens

Jerome is the Regional Director for Walking the Talk Asia Pacific and a leading expert in corporate culture. With over 25 years’ experience in change management, business improvement and strategy development, Jerome has an outstanding track record of success in leading large and complex projects in difficult environments. His key achievements include several large-scale culture and change initiatives for private and government organisations in Australia and Europe. Jerome’s professional experience spans all continents and complex, multicultural environments, with a breadth of experience across a variety of industries such as government, transport, energy and utilities, education, health, not-for-profit and financial services. Walking the Talk is a world leader in helping clients align their culture with their strategy to deliver business results.