Culture Change? Start with the little things

Colin Ellis
4 min readJul 19, 2023

According to the research that I’ve been reading recently, there are two mistakes that organisations — and their leadership teams — make when looking to change their culture.

1) They talk about it, but don’t commit to it

This is the most common mistake. Often an engagement survey produces results or feedback that wasn’t expected, leading senior managers to extol gratitude (sometimes they’ll be ‘humbled’ too) and make grand statements like ‘We’ve listened’ or ‘We’re onto it’ and then you never hear anything ever again. You wonder why you provided feedback, feel resentful when you hear managers talk about culture and resolve never to answer another survey ever again.

Sometimes there may be an early flurry of activity before everything seems to die a death and the budgets for culture/learning and development are removed because of other ‘operational imperatives’.

This lack of commitment to culture is deeply frustrating and sets the company back further. Eventually a transformation program will be required in which consultants are hired to tell the organisation things that employees told them years earlier. They will package it up into a 100-page report which senior managers won’t fully read, but accept as important and critical to action before the cycle is repeated all over again.

It’s funny because it’s true…

2) They try to do too much, too soon

This mistake is much more well-meaning. The engagement survey may again be the catalyst and key themes will be identified. Training may be provided to people on these key themes as a way of addressing the feedback and demonstrating commitment.

This approach will build emotional capital between employees and managers but ultimately fails because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything. In this scenario, culture feels overwhelming and people genuinely feel a conflict between doing what’s right (culture) and doing what’s necessary (tasks).

Positive intent to change will eventually fizzle out, because culture will be seen as just one of a number of priorities, not the main one.

So what’s the answer?

For those with limited time or capacity to bring people together to reset the culture, the best way to start the evolution process is to pick one thing, do that, and then pick another and so on, until the desired results are achieved.

I work with a number of organisations to run monthly sessions to do just that. Employees pick the things they want to do (or we use the engagement survey as a baseline), I write a tailored talk on the actions they can take and then employees go away and execute.

The goal isn’t about getting 60% better after a 2-day program, it’s about getting 5% better every month. By identifying, addressing or creating new ‘‘micro-experiences’, any organisation can redefine the way that people interact to get work done.

Focusing on one small change every month ensures that culture is not overwhelming or time consuming. This approach instils not only positivity but leads to a growth mindset as teams are able to see what’s possible. And often, if you take the time to really listen to people, they don’t want huge changes. They want fewer meetings, fewer emails, more respect, to be listened to, for technology to work, for executives to show their faces, for social interaction to happen in work time and so on.

Season 5 of my new Culture Makers podcast is now live and my first guest is Bhavya Misra, Director and Head of HR for Lenovo in India. She is a perfect example of someone who has focused on micro-experiences to continually improve the employee experience.

When I started the podcast, this was precisely my intention. To get successful business leaders to provide you with insights that you can immediately use, add to your plan of action for the year ahead or simply be inspired by.

Some other ideas that you’ll hear on the Culture Makers podcast this season include:

  • Tour of duty — when new people join, give them an opportunity to work in different areas of the business
  • Avoid fancy theories! — make it a goal to talk to people who do the real work and ask them for their ideas — then empower them to put them into action
  • Have an email free day, once a month
  • Get IT to change the default length of your meetings
  • Don’t send out strategy documents, get each team to present them in an innovative way
  • Proactively problem solve — if you hit a new problem, do some research and you’re bound to find others who’ve encountered the same issues. Write them up as case studies to aid decision-making

But don’t take my word for it, listen to the podcast yourself! I have already interviewed some fantastic people and have another great line up ahead, starting with Bhavya. You can access the podcast here or search for Culture Makers wherever you get your podcasts.

And if you work with someone who you think would be great to feature on the show, drop me a note at colin@colindellis.com

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com