Changing organizational culture: how leaders can recognize issues and guide transformation

Organizational culture impacts nearly every aspect of your business. That’s why it’s essential it is working in your favor. Learn how to identify issues and adopt different leadership styles suited to your team’s unique make-up and situation. In addition, discover practical steps to enact successful cultural change.

As the work world continues to evolve rapidly after the pandemic, leaders are called to be proactive, rather than reactive. More than ever before, a leader needs to anticipate the needs of their business and translate them into a clear plan of action for their team.

A critical factor in whether a new plan or directive will succeed in a company is one that is often hard to put your finger on, yet it affects everything you do. You guessed it – the organizational culture. 

While most people recognize that culture is important for employee acquisition and retention, it’s also key to overall business performance.

An analysis from the Harvard Business Review found evidence that an organization’s climate – or culture – accounts for nearly a third of its results.

What’s more, in a 2021 Global Culture Survey of 3,200 leaders and employees worldwide, 72% reported that culture helped successful change initiatives happen and 69% of organizations that adapted during the pandemic said culture offered them a competitive advantage.

So, it would be fair to say that organizational culture has a visible impact on businesses. But what is organizational culture exactly? 

Defining organizational culture

Culture constitutes the moral framework within which people must act to realize a mission. Organizational culture comprises a company’s values and principles, which indicate the desired workplace behaviors. Establishing these guidelines reinforces motivation and a feeling of belonging within an organization. 

In other words, culture is group behavior individuals tolerate as normal and accepted. It is a shared frame of reference or way of doing things, and it is self-reinforcing.

Cultural norms demonstrate how a group of people deal with internal and external pressures, problems, and opportunities.

Over time, cultural boundaries emerge via:

  • Beliefs and values: what is accepted as truth
  • Mindsets: a set of accepted attitudes – the sum of your beliefs, opinions, and thoughts
  • Behaviors: observable actions viewed as appropriate

The Culture Iceberg

As we mentioned before, culture can be diffuse and hard to put your finger on. The culture iceberg exemplifies that, showing us the underlying aspects of culture that are often more difficult to change.

At the top are the symbols – the visible and tangible aspects of culture – such as employee dress code or written promotion conditions.

Take the promotion conditions example, the conditions signify that there is a fair and objective system in place to decide who gets promoted. Behavior will typically fall in line with this – an employee will act according to the rules if they want to get promoted.  

If we dig deeper and ask “why?”, we see there is a principle at stake. It could be something like “fairness means everyone follows the same rules.” 

Beneath that is a value like “equality for all.” And if we delve even deeper, we’ll find a basic belief that gives rise to the value. In this case, that could be the belief that what you do and achieve is more important than where you come from or your family name.

The culture iceberg is especially relevant in times of trouble: in times of high pressure, the collective memory returns and behavior is heavily influenced by instinctive beliefs. Changing these aspects of culture require a commitment to creating a positive workplace culture.

Recognizing cultural issues to create a positive culture

A positive organizational culture forms a strong base for success and elevates aspirations.

In a positive culture:

  • People focus on priorities
  • People produce efficiently and effectively
  • Creativity is welcomed
  • Shared accountability is the norm
  • Opportunities exist for people to learn and hone skills

As a leader, you have to listen for cultural issues, sometimes very hard. Often, a leader can hear the cultural conflicts in the rhythm of a sour conversation or feel them in the undercurrents of a group. 

Cultural opponents keep to the shadows, which can be like fighting a misty cloud. The mist has no substance, but it blocks the light of leadership. 

Sometimes a significant organizational change or societal event can quickly propel the desire to change within a team. More often, positive leadership energy must remain focused upon negative cultural barriers for a sustained period of time to burn off the old cultural mist. It’s a positive pressure game. 

So, how does the game work?

Leaders set the tone – organizational culture is ultimately a reflection of the behaviors and attitudes leaders exemplify in themselves and tolerate in their relationships. 

Research shows that managers – and we know that great managers act as leaders – account for 70% of the variance in team engagement

That means changing a workplace culture requires individualization. It must start with self-awareness – of a leader’s blindspots, strengths, and preferred styles of leadership.

Recognizing cultural issues to create a positive culture

Leadership styles to direct organizational culture change

There are six generally agreed-upon leadership styles seen within organizations.

1. Directive leadership

The directive leadership style demands quick compliance from employees. Its commanding and controlling approach is most effective in a crisis when immediate results are needed. 

It’s not uncommon for directive leaders to use threats as a way to force desired behavior. In the long term, this style of leadership typically negatively impacts organizational culture.

A directive leader will say, “Do as I tell you.”

2. Visionary leadership

Visionary leaders have a clear idea of what the future should look like. They bring their vision to life by:

  1. Setting concrete goals 
  2. Mobilizing their team towards that vision 

Visionary leadership is overwhelmingly positive and most effective when direction is required. Leaders who adhere to this style are empathetic, big-picture thinkers who communicate well and give team members plenty of space to be creative in how they achieve the defined vision.

A visionary leader will say, “Join me.”

3. Connected leadership

Connected leadership favors a people-first approach that focuses on harmony and shies away from confrontation. Connected leaders are good at forming bonds and communicating feedback, which: 

  • Boosts morale
  • Builds emotional bonds
  • Gives team members a sense of loyalty and belonging

However, the connected leader’s relentlessly supportive approach can prove detrimental to less driven team members who would benefit from a style that applies more pressure, and this style isn’t effective in complicated situations that require clear direction.

A connected leader will say, “People first.”

4. Democratic leadership

Democratic leadership takes an open, communicative approach focused on listening that creates an open environment and fosters high morale. Democratic leaders empower their team and are especially effective at creating buy-in by working collaboratively to make decisions. 

While this style works well to build consensus and camaraderie, this collective style of decision-making can be inefficient. It tends to work best with team members who are more experienced.

A democratic leader will say, “What do you propose?”

5. Pacesetting leadership

Pacesetting leaders set high standards and lead by example. They focus on goals and push team members to achieve them as fast as possible.

Pacesetting leadership is a style that garners quick results in a mature team. However, it risks overwhelming less experienced team members who might be tempted to sacrifice the quality of their work to meet a deadline and can result in low morale with a culture solely focused on tasks and getting things done.

A pacesetting leader will say, “Do as I do now.”

6. Coaching leadership

Coaching leaders are committed to developing people for the future. They are nurturers, adept at mentoring and bringing out the best in people. 

A coaching leadership style works best on team members who are self-aware and want to be coached and can result in employees rising to meet new challenges. However, it does require time and patience and is not best-suited for immediate results. 

A coaching leader says things like, “What are the options? Which one will work for you?”

Each and every team is different, and different moments call for different approaches. That’s why leadership agility or adaptivity – having the ability to switch between styles depending on the situation – is an important skill to master.

Maybe one department under your control is full of high-achievers who are very self-motivated. In that case, adopting a pacesetting style of leadership might make sense. Meanwhile, another department is eager to learn but in need of more direction. For that group, a coaching style may get you the results you seek. 

As a leader, it’s your job to identify which style is most appropriate. It’s not a perfect science, but if you pay attention to the unique challenges and opportunities of your teams, you should instinctively be able to know which approach will work best.

Practical steps for changing workplace culture

With an understanding of the leadership styles in your tool belt, the question becomes how to set effective communication, motivation, and workplace practices to change the organizational culture.

Above all, managing your mindset will be key.

Successful leaders train themselves to adopt growth mindsets where change and challenges are embraced and seen as opportunities.

This mindset will sustain you as you work to shift the cultural tides. 

You have to remember: as a leader, there is no one silver bullet for developing a positive organizational culture, but there are several practices you can implement to promote the best culture for your group.

  1. Personally champion the desired change

    Bravely role model core values and positive behaviors. Every single person in the organization has a platform for change. Every single person in the organization can be the leader that someone else looks to for guidance.

    The platform held by executives and middle managers can attract a larger spotlight, so it’s important to use that platform appropriately. Be visible in your commitment to a productive work environment. Walk around, touch base with people, and exemplify how a positive culture behaves.

  2. Demonstrate serious resolve with bold action

    Any major change to a culture will need to be backed up by serious actions. Be overtly obvious that the culture must change and the old norms will no longer be tolerated.

    Make one or two bold moves to disrupt the current cultural norm – whether that looks like instating a new employee review process or changing the script for how to approach new clients. Then choose an enthusiastic group of early adopters to implement those bold moves. Reinforce your actions by shifting rewards and continuing to roll out more positive changes. Hold true to your word and don’t change course when others test your resolve.

  3. Sell, sell, sell the expected new norms

    Expend whatever energy is needed to move the cultural needle. Remember, the culture has a huge impact on performance, so this is not a sidebar issue. Communication plays a major role in setting new norms and people are hungry for the truth, so focus on putting honest, timely information into the work world, and avoid sugar-coating reality.

    It’s also important to avoid communication voids. Otherwise, the rumor mill will become the default messenger. Make sure your team is clear on the what, why, and how so that you can remove the temptation to gossip.

  4. Honor positive cultural traits and champions

    Recognize the departments and groups of people who model the positive culture your organization seeks. Examine the conditions that helped the positive culture flourish in these groups – learn why they resonated and build from there. Reward these groups by easing off micro-management and permitting greater flexibility in how they do their jobs.

  5. Be purpose-driven

    Purpose is key to cultivating a positive culture because people want to be part of a valuable mission. Ensure they know how important their job and performance are to achieving outcomes by showing each person how their work leads to the larger win. Make problem-solving fulfilling and explain how a toxic culture impedes the shared purpose.

  6. Score some quick, small wins

    Next to the bold moves, also consider launching some ideas that can be executed quickly. Hold lunch talks, optional book clubs, pay-it-forward concepts, greeters, free coffee/tea stations, etc. Anything that sparks a smile or a good thought in an employee’s daily routine and is aligned with the culture you want to create.

  7. Switch up your viewpoint

    As a leader, it’s always critical to take the perspectives of others into consideration and consider the situation from different positions. Understand that what’s upsetting you about the current culture may look completely different from another perspective or with a long-range lens.
    • Consider if you are shutting people down by how you act, particularly under stress.

    Are you listening?
    Are you seeking proposals and input from others?
    Are you using the power of asking questions to garner insights?

    Leaders who don’t listen often wind up with teams that don’t talk, and this silence can take a toll on organizations and people.

  8. Don’t tolerate “villain stories”

    A villain story occurs when we don’t know the motives or all the facts about someone in a situation, so we make up a story – filling gaps with something that sounds plausible. Usually the main character winds up looking like a bit of an ogre. Those who tell villain stories are actively destroying the reputations of others.

    As a leader, it’s important to nip these kinds of actions in the bud when you see them occurring. Stay composed, but steadfastly show no tolerance for vilifying others.

  9. Provide timely, constructive, and positive feedback

    Leaders must be teachers who notice the need for improvement and encouragement. One of the worst things for people is to receive no performance feedback, which sends a message that their work doesn’t matter one way or the other.

    On the flip side, research shows that when employees do receive feedback, 85% take more initiative in the workplace. Harness the power of the proverbial “pat on the back” or congratulatory handshake and recognize accomplishments. Give specific direction, praise, or thanks to show you are paying attention to the actions and contributions of your team members.

  10. Direct training efforts to lift the culture

    All training efforts your company makes towards your employees – every single course, webinar, session – should support positive cultural mindsets and actions. By promoting continuous learning and investing in new skill development for your teams, you have a chance to signal and further instill your company values and purpose. Tune content, formats, trainers, and how participants are selected accordingly.


Culture is the water an organization swims in. When the tides are in your favor, progress is swift. When they are against you, you will have to fight to get where you want to go. That’s why creating a positive workplace culture is crucial to success.

While culture change is no easy feat, an effective leader starts by setting the tone. They exemplify the behaviors they want to see and adapt their leadership style according to their team and the occasion.

There are several practical steps to help initiate change – from identifying cultural champions to providing timely feedback – but above all, leaders need to foster a growth mindset to embrace the challenges as they chart the way forward. Download our “Manage your mindset” e-book to learn more about how you can start implementing positive changes as a leader.

Manage your mindset