How to Change Your Organizational Culture

Industry Advice Education

As a working professional, have you ever examined your organization’s culture and wished that you could change it for the better? 

For example, maybe you’ve seen that managers tend to micromanage the employees who work under them, stifling creativity, curiosity, and independence. Or perhaps you’ve witnessed department heads focusing their efforts on outdated metrics and KPIs, curtailing progress towards key business objectives. Or maybe you’ve sensed an unhealthy undercurrent of competition and rivalry among teams, leading to members undercutting each other instead of working towards shared goals. 

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to change your company’s culture for the better?

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Unfortunately, many organizations are resistant to change, causing professionals to believe they are incapable of fostering and catalyzing change in their organization, says Chris Unger, associate teaching professor for Northeastern’s Doctor of Education (EdD) program

“People believe it is simply impossible to make anything happen where they work. [They think] there’s too much ingrained behavior, a fear to try anything new, or the status quo rules the roost. Or, [individual contributors] think they cannot do anything because they are not in charge. ‘I have no power,’ they say. ‘If I were the president, principal, CEO, department chair, unit leader, or dean, then perhaps I could do something.'”

Unger asserts that this is not the case: “You can always make a difference—even without a complete overhaul of the systems, structures, or practices of an organization. You never know when simply striking up a conversation and engaging others in thinking about a problem can lead to something good.”

Ultimately, the process of changing your organization’s culture is the same as it is for pursuing any kind of organizational change. Below, we explore what “organizational change” is, why it’s so important, and offer examples of different types of organizational changes. Unger also offers tips that you can follow to change your organization’s culture into one that embraces change and all of the potential that comes with it.

What is Organizational Change?

Organizational change is a broad term that refers to any actions an organization (business, corporation, university, institution, etc.) takes to change or otherwise alter an underlying component of the organization.  Organizational change can be adaptive—taking place incrementally over time to address needs as they arise and evolve—or they can be transformational—including grand overhauls that have substantial impact on the organization. 

Examples of Organizational Change

Just as there are many types of organizations, there are many different examples of organizational change. 

An example of adaptive organizational change might include switching from a paper-based office to an electronic office, where employees are encouraged to forgo printing documents as hard copies to conserve paper. Or it might involve adjusting an internal process to include a new form that must be submitted before a meeting space is booked. At the cultural level, an adaptive change might involve instituting a weekly team recap meeting where members of an organization are encouraged to share their successes and challenges in order to increase transparency and accountability.

On the other hand, an example of transformational change might involve launching a company-wide “Green Initiative,” wherein every process and workflow is evaluated and adjusted to minimize environmental impacts. Or it could include a complete overhaul of a company’s process for pitching new products or services, including new workflows and documents. At the cultural level, a transformational change can involve the identification and development of a new company culture and mission statement, which will eventually be incorporated into branding, formal documentation, and employee handbooks.

Why is Organizational Change so Important?

Organizational change is critical because it’s how businesses evolve to face the challenges before them. 

Adaptive changes allow an organization to iterate and improve upon its products, services, and processes on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to stay competitive in a changing market. And transformational changes allow an organization to make substantial pivots to confront new competitors, changing economic demands, or other challenges. Without the ability and desire to change, organizations find themselves stagnating and at threat of being replaced by more innovative competitors.

How to Change Mobilize Organizational Change

Below, Unger offers advice for professionals seeking to transform their organization’s culture from one that fears change to one that embraces it. 

1. Talk with others and gather allies.

In Northeastern’s Doctor of Education (EdD) program, we talk a lot about the power of conversation, building relationships, and engaging others in a collective effort to make a difference in one’s organization.

We often ask students to seek out others in their communities to discuss the challenges they see making a significant impact on the well-being of their organization and its employees. It’s funny how often students identify a significant “problem” that is often not discussed or shared for fear of what might happen if they were to surface the issue.

What we ask our students to do is find a way to broach the topic with others in a friendly, safe, and proactive manner—asking for their perspective on the issue. More often than not, our students begin to discover that others also worry about the same problem, and hearing their peers’ stories helps them think about the problem in new ways. Interestingly, sometimes many of those conversations develop into the mutual consideration of ways the issue could be attended to, using approaches not thought of before.

2. Raise questions and invite others to think about them.

The truth is, your perspective on the problem can be quite limited. When we see only one side and perceive the issue through our own lens of interpretation—and when we quickly make assumptions about the problem and others’ contribution to it—we can easily, and mistakenly, arrive at a fixed stance of what we think is reality but could be quite wrong.

Depending on the problem and the degree we feel safe in questioning it, we may not ask for others’ perspectives. More often, we may just complain to others in “our circle.” But the problem with complaining only to those close to us is that it most likely will not result in any change—just a reinforcement of frustration within you and those you like complaining to and with.

It is hard to know the whole story unless you ask others for their perspectives on the problem. And it is hard to find possible solutions without engaging others in a way that gives them a space to contribute to the solution.

This does, certainly, take a degree of courage, and might entertain a certain level of risk. Broaching a problem or issue with someone else you have not yet built a certain level of trust with can make you feel vulnerable to criticism; the fear is that you will be labeled as an “instigator of trouble.”

But, depending on how you broach the topic and engage others, the potential gain could be great. Others in your organization may have been asking the same questions, have the same concerns, or be wondering what could be done about the problem as well. Moreover, they may have a different perspective based on their experience, which can help you view the problem differently. Better yet, you might find mutual concern about the issue and begin to surmise how you, with others, could take collective action to address it.

3. Move from complaining to collective problem-solving.

Take your complaint or frustration and ask how you could engage with others in your community that might result in a shared concern that you, as a community, could work to resolve together. Why live only within your own head and continue to feel powerless trying to resolve it alone?

When we can proactively engage others, the possibility of change is far greater, and the potential for finding a solution is even greater than that. It is an art form to invite others to share their perspectives and engage in mutual problem-solving, for sure, but is it an art form worth pursuing. That, in the end, is most likely how we can each make a real difference in the culture of our organizations: To raise the questions, engage others, and seek a collective solution to the challenges and problems we face.

Learning to Catalyze Change in Your Organization

Though many believe that organizational change is only possible when initiated by leadership, the fact is employees at all levels are capable of catalyzing, fostering, and supporting change. The key to success lies in learning how to identify those opportunities and in understanding the coalition building that is necessary for change to occur. 

For interested students, the Doctor of Education (EdD) program at Northeastern University (with a concentration in organizational leadership studies) offers an ideal path towards learning these and other important skills. Courses focused on organizational culture and change, communication, systems thinking, and contemporary leadership, paired with the experiential learning opportunities provide students with the knowledge and experience they need to enact powerful change in the world around them. 

To learn how to gain the skills needed to mobilize change in your organization, download the free Guide to Earning Your EdD below. 


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and clarity