Drastically “Changing” Company Culture Usually Backfires.

Creating an engaging company culture that attracts and retains high-quality talent is now a top priority for every wise leader.

New leadership taking the helm often attempts to establish their authority and presence by immediately putting their own distinct thumbprint on a company’s culture. In other instances (like Uber’s current shakeup), orchestrating an immediate and dramatic change to culture becomes vital to a company’s very survival after embarrassing public criticism or scandal tarnishes its reputation.

Though strong leaders usually feel clear about how they think things “should” be, ordering a drastic top-down pivot in culture rarely brings about the authentic company-wide change of heart and mind desired.


Because in throwing out what’s “wrong” with the existing culture, leaders inadvertently send the message to employees that who they were and how they operated before had zero real value or meaning. Teams end up feeling demoralized and defensive instead of invigorated and inspired. To avoid this, focus on evolving the current culture (instead of changing it entirely).

Here’s how to do so effectively:

1. Recognize the positive elements already in place.

Resist throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. While aspects of your team or company culture may need tweaking, there are also behaviors and mindsets already in place that are both positive and productive. Identify what is working (and why) and then strategize how to nurture those elements so they expand. How can you coax those elements in the right direction?

The Holder Report released in conjunction with the internal Uber investigation is smart and on point: “restate values with significant input from employees.” Your floor-level employees usually have a raw, honest sense of what the real culture is in your company (good, bad or ugly). Unfortunately, top brass often forgets to ask them or fails to truly listen when employees try to speak up.

Put your archeologist hat on and dig through the dirt to find the bones of the positive culture already in place. Ask your people for their ideas. They’ll clarify what they need and value. Then, give more energy to what you’d collectively like to see more of.

2.Don’t ignore the shadow side of “positive” culture behaviors.

Most well-intentioned leaders sanction values and behaviors they believe will contribute to the healthy work culture they want in place. But they don’t pause and reflect on how those very same behaviors might inadvertently sabotage company culture instead.

Every positive behavior has a shadow side that can poison the climate of your company or team if you glaze over it. For example, insisting that colleagues are kind and respectful to one another seems essential to a supportive, productive work environment. And it is. But the shadow side of that edict is that employees may shy away from sharing important, honest feedback for fear of coming across mean or rude and possibly being reprimanded for it.

Likewise, screening candidates for the right culture fit can easily slip into only hiring people who think and act one way, sabotaging the creation of a diverse and inclusive team.

A truly effective and sustainable culture hinges on polarity. Insist on both honesty and respect. Nurture both kindness and firm boundaries. Encourage shared values and difference of opinion. Take time to identify the shadow side of your culture and then bring it into balance.

3. Be honest about who you really are versus who you think you should be.

Netflix has a firm rule as part of its culture: High performance is expected from all employees. Their culture deck states, “Sustained B-level performance, despite ‘A for effort,’ generates a generous severance, with respect.” Though this approach may seem harsh to some, Netflix is 100% honest about who they are and the culture employees can expect.

What truth about culture dynamics at your company do you need to accept, and how can you turn it into a genuine positive? For example, the age-old clash between the engineering department and the sales team will likely always exist. Instead of trying to force or fake unilateral alignment, create a culture that honors their differences in approach while ensuring that all points of view are heard and valued.

Ultimately, a successful culture must create happy, engaged employees while also driving external business goals.

Be honest about how you and your company go about pursuing both purpose and profits. Understand that there will be unintended consequences to your culture approach. Expect that and know you’ll adjust accordingly. Establishing a vibrant, sustainable company or team culture is a constant dance.

Remember, if you don’t like the culture currently in place, evolve it by first shifting how you show up in the workspace. Your every comment, action and decision contribute to shaping the overall culture in powerful ways. CEO Travis Kalanick’s influence at Uber, for better or worse, is powerful proof of that.

Have the courage to reflect on how your personality and behavior contribute to the aspects of the culture you dislike. Because the truth is, whether you’re an entry-level employee or a member of the C-suite, the process of effectively evolving culture is exactly the same — start with yourself.

* This article originally published on Forbes.com

Nathalie Salleshelps global leaders and diverse teams elevate their innate excellence and make dynamic progress toward their specific goals, strategies, or vertical growth vision. Visit her website to learn more.