Why Changing Your Church’s Culture Rarely Works Out

The Boston Globe recently ran a front-page story in their “Ideas” section on organizational culture, inspired by some depressing events involving the Boston University hockey team. It was much more impactful than the average writing about culture, and raised the important question: Why do conversations about an important topic like culture typically go nowhere, leading companies to waste time and money with “cultural change efforts” which very seldom work?

Here is the problem: First, virtually no one clearly defines what they mean by “culture,” and when they do they usually get it wrong. Second, virtually no one has read the original research that shows why culture – when clearly defined – is so important, how it is formed, and how it changes.

Definition: Culture consists of group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place. Take your work, for example, a place where almost everyone shows up between 8:55 and 9:05. Why? Not because the CEO has decreed it, or because people are fired if they don’t do it. That’s just the way it is! That is a group norm. Why does it exist? And why doesn’t it go away when Gen X or Y individuals are hired? My guess: People are hired who embrace the value of respecting others, including other people’s time, so they also show up to meetings on time, and anyone who doesn’t gets a glaring look from everyone else.

Where does culture come from? It usually comes from the founders of the group. For whatever reason, they value certain things and behave in ways that seem to help the group succeed. Success is key. So it seeps into the group’s DNA.

How does culture change? A powerful person at the top, or a large enough group from anywhere in the organization, decides the old ways are not working, figures out a change vision, starts acting differently, and enlists others to act differently. If the new actions produce better results, if the results are communicated and celebrated, and if they are not killed off by the old culture fighting its rear-guard action, new norms will form and new shared values will grow.

What does NOT work in changing a culture? Some group decides what the new culture should be. It turns a list of values over to the communications or HR departments with the order that they tell people what the new culture is. They cascade the message down the hierarchy, and little to nothing changes.

In summary, that’s the whole story.

Read more from John here.


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John Kotter

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I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
"While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken

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