Can we really change culture?

Caroline Mabey

23 / 2 / 2016 11.35am

Caroline Mabey is deputy director of organisation development (OD) at the Royal Free London (RFL) NHS Foundation Trust. She joined the RFL in 2011, bringing with her  20 years’ experience working as an independent consultant in the social housing sector.  She is responsible for all aspects of organisational development including: leadership and talent development, culture change, large group interventions and supporting the trusts transformation programme. Caroline is currently studying for an MSc in People and Organisational Development at Roffey Park Institute. 

It’s hard not to notice the messages about a need to change culture in the NHS.  While many OD practitioners are doing good things in the culture space, I have increasingly found myself wondering, 'can I really change culture?' When I observe the life around me and take time to quietly watch and notice things I ask, 'where do I stand on this?'

In some ways writing this blog was in service of my need to gain clarity. Maybe you are in search of an answer too? I’d like to share a method that might help you make sense of it. 

I’d like you to imagine there is a horizontal line in front of you, representing a continuum of culture change. At one end of the culture change continuum, culture can be changed, controlled and manipulated. The opposite end of the continuum represents us having absolutely no control or ability to manage culture. In the middle, culture can be changed, but it is tough and challenging.

Where are you on the continuum?

Step onto the continuum where it feels right for you right now. Why are you standing in that spot? What perspective do you hold? What informs your thinking and certainty? How do you feel about your position? How have you come to know what you know to be true?  Are you a lone OD practitioner standing on that spot or is there a group forming with you? 

Now think about culture change in your organisation. Was there a trigger that set you off on a culture change journey?

Imagine asking your executives to step onto the culture change continuum. Where are they standing in relation to you? How close or far apart are they from your position? What are you noticing? How do you know where they would be standing? What is their culture paradigm and who do they think is responsible for culture change?

I hope that this may have you a little stirred up and wanting to find out more. How about what the theorists say? Well that depends on which house you live in. If you live in the sociologist house, when you look out of your window you will see culture as a ‘thing’ that can be controlled, changed, managed and something the organisation possesses (Cheung-Judge & Holbeche 2011, p.235).  The Burke Litwin model (1992) of Organisational Performance and Change points to culture being a ‘thing’.

But I notice I’m not too at home in the sociology house, despite having settled there for a while. If I stay here too long, I might start to see my organisation as a machine and collude with my housemates that culture is a ‘thing’ that can be changed in a very planned, Newtonian way.   

So now I’m moving next door into the anthropologist house and I like what I see when I look out of their window. I see that culture is not consciously created but is a deep, dynamic phenomenon, created by our interactions with others and shaped by leadership behavior and existing at different levels (Schein 2004).  Out of this window the organisation is culture. The organisation is a system that is constantly adapting to the external world.  

I’m curious about the house down the road, where the complexity and chaos thinkers live. I imagine many voices; I’m listening hard and picking up on words like 'patterns' and 'simple rules'. I’m curious about how that world-view could help me to change culture.

At work, I see the wonder of so much caring and incredible life saving work, but I cannot let that blind me to some of the darker spots of our NHS culture. Whether you think culture is a ‘thing’ that an organisation possesses or that the organisation is culture, we need to think about ways to brighten the darker spots of our organisations’ personalities.

I believe it is time to delve deep into all that we have learned in our OD history and ask some curious questions. I wonder what is hindering and overshadowing the beauty of our NHS?  Can we consciously work with culture to significantly improve organisational life for the benefit of patients and staff? In my view we can change culture, but like changing aspects of ourselves, it isn’t easy and we don’t always want to go there. It is going to take many conversations and time in a world that is going ever faster. 

‘What house of culture do you live in?’   
Cheung-Judge, M.-Y. & Holbeche, L., 2011. Organization development a practitioner’s guide for OD and HR, London: Kogan Page.
Burke, W. & Litwin, G., 1992. A causal model of organizational performance and change. Journal of management, 18(3), pp.523–545.
Schein, E.H. (2004). Organizational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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