Q&A: Uncovering the secrets to culture change

Jay Barney and Manoel Amorim, co-authors of “The Secret of Culture Change,” say transforming your organization’s culture starts with building a story.

Jay Barney, professor of strategic management entrepreneurship at the University of Utah, and CEOs Manoel Amorim and Julio Carlos collected and analyzed 150 stories from business leaders for their book “The Secret of Culture Change” to determine an effective approach to changing workplace cultures. Barney and Amorim sat down with Talent Management to dive into how story building is a vital factor in culture change. 

Q. What strategies can talent leaders use to initiate and champion culture change throughout an organization? 

Barney: Some people have said when there’s a conflict between strategy and culture, culture eats strategy for breakfast. If that kind of conflict exists, then people say, “Well, we need to change our cultures.” And there are a variety of techniques or efforts to try to make that happen. Most of them don’t work out that well. What we found in our research, is that successful businesses use both top down and bottom up [approaches], and they evolve around engaging in activities that have the effect of building stories. 

Q. Based on your research, what were companies’ most beneficial cultural values? 

Amorim: We found that because each company has to pursue its own strategy and the culture should be one that allows that strategy to be well implemented, we don’t think there is a universal value that should be part of all corporate cultures. Each corporate culture needs to have its own aspects, its own values and norms, that will then reinforce and allow the strategy to be implemented. It didn’t come out of our research that anything is universal. 

Barney: Almost all prior work on culture tried to identify what are the six, seven or eight critical values and every culture needs to have. We explicitly say that is not what we’re about. Culture is specific to strategy. 

Q. Story building is emphasized as a key factor to culture change in your book. What does story building involve, and why is it important? 

Barney: It involves a business leader acting and doing things in a way that are inconsistent with the previous culture but consistent with a new culture. The book is essentially 52 stories that business leaders have built to try to change organizational cultures. And they all begin with a business leader doing something that is usually dramatically different than the previous culture. 

Amorim: It’s important to emphasize that storytelling and story building, as defined in our work, are two separate concepts. And a leader sometimes will pick examples from history from other leaders, even fables, to exemplify what they want to see. And at times, this can be very powerful. It’s been talked about, but that’s not what we have presented in our book. Story building comes from one simple fact: Everybody talks about what the leader does. And many leaders don’t realize the power and potential that has, when they do something right, and everybody will be talking about what they’ve done. 

Barney: And pretty soon we have what the book would call a story cascade, where this idea of changing culture by building new stories moves down the organization. After all that begins happening, then you change the organization to be consistent with the new culture. 

Q. What challenges do leaders face when trying to initiate culture change? How can they overcome those challenges? 

Barney: All the challenges associated with culture change are all reasonable and easy to understand. Culture is diffused throughout the organization. No one’s in charge of the culture, which makes it hard to change. So what we found is that by building stories by engaging in activities, it’s very difficult to walk those back. Many of the attributes of what makes an effective culture changing story have to do with enabling the business leaders to stick an unmovable stake in the ground saying, “This is going to happen. And I’m going to begin the process by engaging in these activities myself.”

Amorim: One very common challenge, and in my opinion, it’s the most difficult to overcome at times, is when you find opposition to the culture change in the top ranks of the company. And they start opposing sometimes silently, sometimes trying to discredit the move. And I used to say that when we face that, we have two choices: Either change the person or change the person. You either try to explain why it’s important to change, and if that doesn’t work, leaving the person in that same position with that same attitude can become the biggest threat to the culture change effort. You change the person; you’ll fire the person and replace them with someone who believes in the new culture.  

Q. How can talent leaders ensure employees feel valued and appreciated when implementing culture change?

Amorim: They have to invite people to participate in the story building process. And you can do that in several ways. There are some other things like praising people who do something for you that are consistent with a new culture. So people start seeing that; if you embrace the new culture, you can contribute, you can be recognized and will be recognized. Another example is to create some programs where you invite people to contribute. 

Q. What advice would you give leaders who want to change the culture of their organization but don’t know where to start?

Barney: If you want to change your organization’s culture, start by building a story. That’s the bottom line of our book.

Amorim: A lot of people don’t realize how important it is to start behaving in a way that is public, that is visible, not because of vanity or anything like that, but because you realize your role. The person who portrays the values or obeys the new norms shows how successful it can be. And if you do that, your actions will become stories people will talk about.