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Andrew Day

June 9th, 2020

Organisational change is a challenge uniquely suited to the insights of social science

1 comment | 30 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Andrew Day

June 9th, 2020

Organisational change is a challenge uniquely suited to the insights of social science

1 comment | 30 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The organisational cultures of businesses and institutions of all kinds have massive implications for society, from day-to-day working conditions, to the impact organisations have on the environment and the economy. In this post, Andrew Day, presents evidence from a recent study into cultural change initiatives and argues that a social perspective of organisations as being, rather than having, a culture, is vital to delivering meaningful changes.

In recent years, we have witnessed a series of crises and major disruptions in banking, retail, health, international aid, automotive, higher education and other sectors. All of these high-profile cases and others could be understood as problems of cultural adaptation leading to the decline, collapse or reputational damage of the institution involved. Such crises arise because of changes in societal values, economic trends, rapid technological innovation and, increasingly, the climate emergency.  They raise fundamental questions about the dominant norms, values and core assumptions of the organisation. In a similar way, the coronavirus pandemic is challenging accepted cultural norms and practices; and triggering debates around the need for changing working practices.

The difficult realities of changing culture

Every year organisations invest millions of pounds and significant time and energy in trying to change culture.  Many leaders are, however, left disappointed by the impact of such initiatives. We also hear considerable scepticism and cynicism from employees and other stakeholders. Often, culture change projects are judged not to be genuine efforts to change or not to make a meaningful difference.  In many cases, rather than bringing about change, attempts to change culture are unwittingly ‘more of the same’ or a reinforcement of the existing way of doing things. This results in frustration, disappointment and disillusionment when hopes and expectations of change are not realised.

To understand the realities of culture change in organisations, throughout 2019, we spoke with senior managers, HR Directors and organisation development practitioners into their experience of trying to change culture in their organisations. Our insights are briefly summarised below:

Common Pitfalls

We heard a range of pitfalls and traps which often led to disappointment.  The main ones being:

  • Treating culture separately to strategy, structures and work processes rather than seeing them as reflecting a prevailing set of cultural assumptions and beliefs;
  • Aiming for ill-defined and abstract aspirations that become ‘all things-to all-people’, for instance, the appeal for greater ‘teamwork and collaboration’;
  • Being over-ambitious and idealistic about what degree of change and control over culture is possible;
  • Leaders calling for a change in culture but unwittingly acting in ways that reinforce established cultural patterns and dynamics;
  • Oversimplifying or misinterpreting the existing culture which leads to actions that are superficial, address the wrong issues or are misperceived by employees; and finally,
  • Underestimating the amount of time, energy and resource that is required to bring about sustained, meaningful and deep change.  

Problematic assumptions

Behind these pitfalls lie a number of unhelpful assumptions.  These are: 

  • Culture is a ‘thing’ that can be measured, planned and designed;
  • Leaders have control over culture and can determine how they want to change it, and therefore
  • Cultures can be moved from ‘A’ to ‘B’.

In contrast, cultural anthropology conceptualises culture to be patterns of meaning that are expressed through behaviour, language, rituals, and artefacts. These reflect the values and assumptions that people hold as being ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ in a given context. In this sense, most of what happens in an organisation can be understood as an expression of culture.  Rather than saying an organisation has a culture, therefore, we need to see them as being cultures. 

From this perspective, we need to consider the symbolic and emotive side of organisational life, as well as the rational-logical. Cultures start to change when the meaning that people attach to what they do shifts, and they start to see a situation differently. This opens up new possibilities for acting and behaving. For this to happen, shared assumptions, beliefs and norms need to be disrupted, challenged or brought into question.  This is, more often than not, an uncomfortable process that involves letting go of certitudes and beliefs that have served people well in the past. 

What works in practice: “don’t call it culture change!”

Our main insight from our research is that organisations need to focus on influencing cultural practices that help or hinder the achievement of tangible goals that people care about and are willing to commit to. This generates the desire and emotional energy for change. To do this, leaders and change agents need to:

  • Help those involved to understand why these goals are important and linked to significant external trends or events.
  • Inquire with people into how specific cultural patterns help or hinder the achievement of these goals.
  • Signal changes through their everyday actions.  This need to disrupt established norms, assumptions or beliefs.
  • Create an environment which encourages everyone to question what they do and how they do it.
  • Change symbols, structures, processes, workspaces and policies to reinforce desired patterns and values.
  • Review what is happening regularly with people to make sense of what they are experiencing, hearing and seeing, and
  • Play the long game by being patient, consistent and persistent!

In the coming months and years, we can expect the Coronavirus Pandemic to generate a whole series of cultural debates across societies and organisations. These debates have already started and are closely related to the cultural shift to remote digital forms of living and working that have been accelerated by the lockdown. For instance, many of the myths around home and virtual working are being broken as people have had to adapt to working under lockdown. Retailers are also having to rethink entrenched business cultures in the face of store closures and the need for social distancing that has dramatically accelerated a shift towards online shopping. In the public sector, universities and the NHS’s response to the crisis has demonstrated what can be done when cultural norms and traditions are by necessity reconfigured.

Each of these debates, and countless others that are emerging, creates a potential for change in organisations if they can be recognised, surfaced and engaged with by managers and employees.  Leadership is critical to whether this potential for change is realised.  People need to be helped to notice how shared norms and assumptions have restricted what they do and how they do it; and then encouraged to experiment and act differently.  


This post draws on the findings of Metalogue’s recent report: “Culture…where to start? The realities of culture change in organisations” to find out more the full report can be downloaded by following the link. 

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below

Image Credit: Adapted from Image from page 112 of “The palace of Minos : a comparative account of the successive stages of the early Cretan civilization as illustrated by the discoveries at Knossos” (1921), Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr (no known copyright)


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About the author

Andrew Day

Dr Andrew Day is a Partner in Metalogue a consultancy that specialises in organisation development and design. They work across the public, private and third sectors, including a number of higher education institutions

Posted In: Impact