I seem to hear the phrase Culture Change a fair bit at the moment. Increasingly I’m coming to the conclusion as it’s used as a shorthand for “people change we don’t know how or can’t be bothered to address”.

Changing people’s behaviours is hard. But changing culture is even harder. To be honest, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s generally a bit of a fool’s errand to change an organisation’s culture. There are occasions when it’s necessary (institutionalised racism in public services, for example), but for the most part culture change is something that happens slowly and over much time.

But if you want people to do things differently, to change their behaviours, you can try one of three approaches: the “suck it and see” approach – dump some change on them and see what happens; the “it’s cultural change” approach which is basically the same as the first one but with a bit less honesty; or alternatively, you can try and frame the changes in a way that is culturally sensitive.

What does that mean? Well, a useful way to break down what culture actually is is to think of it in this way: an organisation’s culture is driven by the values held by people in the organisation (and the actual values, not the output of some values statement exercise pushed from the centre). Those values drive the attitudes that people hold, which in turn drive their behaviours (you can find more on this – the Tulip Culture model – at http://stamplondon.co.uk/recipes).

If you want to position a change in behaviours that is culturally sensitive, think about the attitudes that drive how things are today. Align new behaviours in a way that is sympathetic to the underlying values of the organisation.

The challenges that come from lumping all of this stuff as being “cultural” change is that that label in itself makes the job much, much harder. Not only because true culture change is very hard and there’s nothing like making things harder for yourself than saying those things are very hard, but also because there’s no better way to make a change programme culturally insensitive than by saying that it’s going to need a change in culture.

So, next time you’re confronted with the woes of the difficulty of cultural change, take a step back and ask is that really what’s required?

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