By Alan Weisenberger

I once had responsibility for a large technology project that never delivered on its objectives. We had a team of highly skilled people with a great track record of successful projects. They used processes that had succeeded repeatedly in the past. But we never got the traction to make this project take off.

The reason, I believe, lies in an unintentional shift that had occurred in the organization’s culture. That change sucked the energy, passion, and motivation from this highly competent team. They had always been passionate to succeed but now they were just trying to get a job done.

Defining Culture
In the 1980s, Dr. Edgar Schein did some foundational work on organizational culture at MIT. He defines culture in three layers.

On the surface, we see ARTIFACTS – easily observed characteristics like facilities and furnishings, how people dress, how they interact with each other, meeting practices, slogans and creeds, and other language choices.

Beneath these artifacts we have SHARED VALUES that drive behaviors and decisions that result in the artifacts. It’s not just the core values hanging on the wall, even if those have been well articulated and are evident in the DNA of the organization. We have many layers of individual values. When we come together these get shaped — intentionally or unintentionally — into the values we share as a group.

But beneath the values is yet another layer. These are the TACIT ASSUMPTIONS that we don’t consciously recognize in normal interactions. Participants become acclimatized to the “unspoken rules”, taboo topics, and sacred cows that exist largely at a subconscious level.

The depth and complexity of culture explains why we find it so difficult to change.

Changing the artifacts alone won’t create a new culture. Put in as many ping pong tables and coffee bars as you want, but those changes won’t give you a Google-like culture.

Tacit Assumptions are hard to uncover and even harder to change. Once we discover them, they’re no longer tacit. But other Tacit Assumptions will still lay below the surface.

Our best leverage comes from focusing on the Values layer. At some level, everything we do is driven by our values. Losing weight is hard if I value the momentary pleasure of that second (or third) scoop of ice cream over the health benefits of moderation.

Operating from a shared understanding of the reasons WHY we do things and the NORMS we expect everyone to operate by creates a powerful lever we can lean on to drive success. But too often, we just assume everyone shares our unspoken values.

Why does Culture Matter?
A strong, healthy culture can put even a mediocre strategy on steroids. But it can prevent even the greatest strategy from gaining any traction. We ignore culture to our own peril, or we can leverage it for great benefit.

Your organization’s culture is a living, changing organism. Whether you’re intentional about it or not, it is evolving. You may get lucky and it will become healthier without you making that happen. But that’s a dangerous bet.

Strengthening your culture is an investment with a great return. For example, clarity on what’s important allows good decision making to be pushed down through the organization. That will free up bandwidth at higher levels. It also translates into higher productivity, since your people spend less time waiting for other people to make decisions.

When your hiring practices are built on a strong culture with clear values, you’ll find yourself hiring the right people more often. You’ll spend more time hiring for growth rather than hiring for turnover because employee morale (and retention) will rise. A safe, healthy culture allows your staff to redirect energy they’re using to protect themselves into more productive endeavors.

Tips for Changing Culture
Here’s a three-phase outline to help you think about how to change your culture. Working together with your leadership team will be more effective than trying to do it all yourself.

1: Clearly Identify your current cultural values
Make a list of the common behaviors and cultural artifacts you observe in your organization. Consider the history of how they came to exist. Why were they created? Why do they persist?

Next identify the values you believe drive each artifact. Test your list by getting input from others to make sure you’re being honest about what’s driving the artifacts. Some artifacts might reflect values you intentionally created; others might reveal values you didn’t realize were in play. You may or may not be happy with some of the value that you discover.

2: Intentionally Shape the cultural you want
Once you’re clear about the values currently in play, prioritize which values you want to either strengthen or replace. WRITE DOWN YOUR DESIRED VALUES and keep them front and center. A catchy phrase is helpful but be ready to drill down on what they look like in action. Talk about them – A LOT! Multiple times every day. If your staff can’t predict that you’re going to mention your values, you aren’t bringing them up nearly enough. You should have a big portfolio of values stories to share whenever you get the chance.

Never miss an opportunity to commend people for choices they make that reflect and strengthen the values. Coach others on how to adjust behaviors that aren’t aligned with your values.

Help people connect the dots between their actions and the organization’s values. If you recognize your employees’ personal values, you can leverage them by helping employees see how their work reflects their personal values.

Think out loud while you’re making decisions to help others see how the values influence your decisions.

For values that don’t currently exist, start a dialog with others about what it would look like if those values were really practiced in your organization.

Invite others in your organization — from the Board of Directors to your receptionist — to hold you accountable for consistently living your values. Encourage them to ask you if they think you’re doing something inconsistent, and if they’re right, admit it and recommit to living them.

3: Proactively Monitor cultural changes
Listen for how often you hear others reference the values. You know your values are becoming part of your organizational DNA when you overhear them being talked about when people don’t know you’re listening.

Keep your eyes open for behaviors that are early indicators of unhealthy values shifts – like the one I mentioned in the opening paragraphs.
Shaping and monitoring your culture are not tasks you get to check off your list and move on. They need to become habits that permeate everything else you do. Like any good habit, it may seem daunting at first but gets easier with practice.

Proactively caring for your organization’s culture isn’t spending time, it’s INVESTING it. Don’t miss out on the potential returns of a strong, healthy culture.

Alan Weisenberger launched enLumen Leadership Services to invest in the next generation of business and nonprofit leaders. With a passion to help young leaders become wise before they grow old, Alan provides coaching, mentoring, and consulting to help leaders create healthy organizations where people flourish. His background includes twenty years as VP of Technology Services with the Evangelical Christian Credit Union and eleven years with Bank of America. He currently serves on several nonprofit boards. He and his wife, Kerri, have three daughters and one son-in-law. You can contact him at, or 714-981-5585. For more leadership tips, follow his leadership blog at