Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Cross-Cultural Psychology

Leadership and the Psychology of Culture Change

How leaders perceive culture impacts their ability to navigate culture change.

Key points

  • Leaders often think about wanting to preserve elements of culture as their organizations grow.
  • Thinking of culture as something to preserve is misleading because it is always changing.
  • Understanding the deep-level structure of culture can help leaders navigate these changes more effectively.
Source: FLY:D/Unsplash

Over the course of the past year and a half of building a hiring and assessment platform (Leadhr), I have had the chance to speak with dozens of founders, leaders, and hiring managers about growth and culture change.

A few examples are:

  • A tech startup that raised $3 million in seed funding and now needs to hire five new people onto a five-person team
  • A professional services firm that is looking to hire partner-level talent to grow beyond the capacity of its charismatic founder
  • A brick and mortar business that has scaled operations to multiple locations in multiple states and needs to adapt its hiring processes to better serve its new structure

The leaders navigating this growth are excited and energized by what’s happening and concerned about how their company and culture are changing as a result. And they all have asked, at one point or another, some version of the question: “How do we preserve what makes us 'us' as we grow?”

Why you can’t preserve culture

This mindset always intrigues me because it implicitly frames culture change as a loss. It’s like saying you want your child to grow up, but you don’t want them to change in the process.

Of course, we want our children to change as they grow up; that means they’re maturing, which is necessary for adapting to adult life. That doesn't mean it won’t be hard or that we won’t grieve the loss of some of the characteristics that get sloughed off along the way.

Wanting your organization to grow and your culture to stay the same is a similar problem. If your company is growing, your culture is changing. New people are entering the system, and the system is evolving. So, in a certain way, if you want your company to grow, you want your culture to change.

A different way to think about culture

Indeed, maturing may be a useful analog to the evolution of culture in a growing organization.

There are surface-level elements of the culture that founders and early employees will grow quite fond of that will shift and change as new people come in and organizational processes and behaviors adjust to accommodate more people. The surface-level elements of culture will tend to change the most quickly; although deep-level characteristics may persist, they just may manifest in different ways.

For example, consider a founder whose caring personality and charismatic sales ability have allowed him to grow his professional services firm into a market leader. As more employees are hired to manage new business, more structure is put in place, and the culture begins to feel more structured and less familial. The founder feels less connected to his employees and laments the change, wondering if the company is losing part of the culture that has made it special.

The deep-level structure of culture

If he defines culture based on his experience—say, having a personal relationship with each employee—then he will certainly perceive these changes as a loss.

However, if he works to define the underlying cultural dynamic that has made personal relationships with his employees so fulfilling—say, one of warmth and employee support perhaps—he can shape a different expression of the same cultural value that is more appropriate for the organization at that stage of growth.

For example, he may attend new employee orientation sessions to show his investment in new employees and to have personal conversations with new hires, even if he doesn't have the time to get to know each one.

How can culture be shaped?

Because we often think of culture in a top-down way—leaders “set the culture,” and everything else falls into place—many culture change efforts start with an assessment of the executive team and a reevaluation of an organization’s stated core values.

To return to my parenting metaphor... in the absence of other efforts, these types of culture change endeavors will have about as much effect on culture change as evaluating the traits of a parent and then having the parent state aloud how she would like her child to mature.

Culture is an emergent phenomenon that can best be managed by tending to the conditions in which it occurs. Which is to say, leaders must focus on things they can change that impact culture. These may include things like organizational hierarchy, reporting structures, compensation and incentive plans, policies and procedures, promotion criteria, organizational strategy, who is on the team, and—sometimes more importantly—who isn’t.

As William Bridges says, new beginnings require new understandings and attitudes, and in the case of culture change, they may require new strategies, structures, and leadership mindsets.

This can be a challenge with culture because change isn't always punctuated, but those leaders who take time to become a student of their culture, the conditions that shape it, and their role within it will be those who best adapt as it evolves.

More from Ross Blankenship Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today