Top Reasons Cultural Transformations Fail

Our Linked 2 Leadership group on LinkedIn (connect with me at is having a lively and insightful discussion on the question, “What are the top reasons why cultural transformations fail?” Since the failure rate of organizational change efforts like health and safety, quality, productivity, innovation, customer service, morale/engagement, teamwork, or public sector renewal is around 70%, this is a critical question. The discussion is timely since I am currently pulling together research on Leadership and Culture Development for Higher Health and Safetyfor our (no charge) webcast on May 23.

There are a few dozen thoughtful observations and shared experiences getting at the root causes of the problem. Very rightfully a number of comments focus on managers’ leadership behaviors:

  • “Culture was imposed rather than engaging a critical mass in building the new culture.”
  • “Those calling for a cultural change do not really, really understand the culture in the first place. Nor do they understand their part in perpetuating the existing culture.”
  • “…studies show that upper management is only aware of about 4% of all the problems in the workplace while those on the bottom rung are aware of 100%.”
  • “A huge factor is engaging managers and frontline workers before changes are implemented. The frontlines know what is working and what isn’t; get their perspective and making them a part of the change.”
  • “Culture is most strongly influenced by the behavior of the people at the top — if their behavior is not in line with the new culture, it will never succeed.”
  • “…organizations want the benefits of culture change without the pain of behavioral change.”
  • “If top management wants a highly motivated, highly committed, fully engaged, values-based workforce capable of beating their competition and having very high morale, they need to meet the five basic needs of their people; to be heard, respected, competent, autonomous, and having an overriding sense of purpose.”
  • “It is fairly common to hear leaders talk about their population of employees as change resistant. Why not turn the conversation back around to focus on them and ask, ‘What is it that you, as leaders, have failed to communicate to your organization that would help them understand and feel good about whatever is next?’”

We strongly agree with this focus on leadership behavior. “Leadership Lip Service: Behaviors Undefined and Underdeveloped” is the first and most critical of the Fatal Five Failure Factors our research uncovered in putting together our Leading a Peak Performance Culture webcast summarizing our workshops, management team retreats, and consulting services on this topic.

But the Linked 2 Leadership discussion is lopsided and incomplete. It’s only focusing on the “soft skills” or leadership side of culture change. Our experience is BOTH leadership and management are needed. It isn’t either/or. We often see organizations focus too heavily on one or the other and become part of that 70% failure rate for these efforts.

Focusing on the “soft” side of culture, such as purposeful connections to the heart, an energizing vision, engaging through core values, or strengthening leadership behaviors are vital. But if they are not backed up by realigning operational processes and shifting key support systems you end up with highly motivated people who come to feel manipulated and powerless against “the bureaucracy.”

It’s in the operating/horizontal processes and support systems (IT, measurements, org structure and HR policies like compensation, and what gets people hired, fired, and promoted) that senior management’s true values of trust, teamwork, engagement, customer focus, safety, and other espoused values become rhetoric or reality.

What are your perspectives and experiences? Please join the discussion and add your comments to the bottom of this post.


For over 30 years, Jim Clemmer’s practical leadership approaches have been inspiring action and achieving results. He has delivered thousands of keynote presentations, workshops, and management team retreats to hundreds of organizations around the globe moving his audiences from inspiration to application. He’s listed in the World’s Top 30 Most Influential Leadership Gurus based on research with 22,000 global business people, consultants, academics and MBAs. His website is

1 Comment on "Top Reasons Cultural Transformations Fail"

  1. The biggest reason is the huge and expanding gulf between the workers and the bosses.
    It used to be ‘them and us’ in labour relations of the 1970’s, with confrontation and arguement. Now its actually worse with no discussion or arguement at all.
    How can a guy on 15,000 on the shop floor (or even 50 or 100,000) understand or feel the same ‘culture’ as a guy on 1 or 5 million a year who goes from meeting to meeting all over the world jet setting and playing golf for his ‘meetings’? I am NOT exaggerating here, this is the gulf. These people don’t share a culture – in fact they share nothing really apart from the company name on their business cards.
    Worse, the guys ‘at the top’ rarely if ever even have a conversation – even a good morning – to the workers. The workers are worried about paying the mortgage or rent, about the cost of electricity to light their homes, the cost of milk, bread and other staples, how much the fuel costs to get to work, the ‘top dogs’ are worried about where to get their latest ferrari or whether the mistress will contact the wife. Even small talk is no longer possible, they share nothing about the company – not the aim not anything, they share nothing in life either.

    Then of course there are the layer upon layer of ‘management’ between the shop floor worker and the top. The managers who think that they need to positively spin everything – remember the tale of the pile of shit the shop floor saw that was wonderful by the time it got to managment? (its on the net somewhere I’m sure). What ever goes up is never delivered as the original message. Whatever comes down that is positive is invariably changed on its way down… most modern software companies at the top level think that they allow home working, but by the time each layer of managers has worried about ‘health and safety’, ‘security of the equipment’, ‘time reporting’. ‘discussions with colleagues’, ‘how do I know you are working’ etc etc etc etc etc etc I have yet to work in a company where working from home is ever more than a very occasional, questionable, begrudged privaledge.

    For change to be successful you need
    a) Few layers – best to have just the ‘boss’ and the ‘staff’
    b) The boss and the staff need to be together in the same office or all working from home
    c) The boss and the staff need to be ‘in shouting distance’ in terms of living standards and salary – not multiples of hundreds apart
    d) The boss should take the staff down the pub or similar most Fridays … it is important to buy people a beer in an informal setting and chat – just chat, if you don’t like beer go for coffee – the beer is not the important part. What is is getting OUT of the office and TALKING
    e) If the company is huge then break it down into small offices where the stuff above is true. I used to work for ‘Origin’ many many years ago. Each office at Origin was between 15 and 45 people, if it got bigger it was split into two offices . These were autonomous ‘cells’ they made their own arrangements, had their own culture, their own aims and their own customers. We never heard or saw ‘head office’ which looked after nothing more than the company pension and health plans – we ran the rest in our own little cells – including our own culture.

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