Why Changing Employees’ Behaviours and Attitudes Changes the Organisation’s Culture



Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1999





The last two decades of management theory have seen an increased awareness of and emphasis on the organisation’s culture as an important factor not only in discussions of organisational efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity, but also in a wider context encompassing prevailing morale and ethics in our society. This paper examines what role an organisation’s culture has in the process of organisational change. It shall be argued that whether an organisation experiences revolutionary or evolutionary change, its culture is likely to be affected. This may require changing employees’ attitudes and behaviour so that they fit into the change process



Culture, Organisation, Change, Behaviour, People, Management, HRM



Put a frog in a bowl of cold water. Heat the water up slowly - the frog
does not jump up but gets lulled to sleep until eventually it is boiled alive
(Handy, 1990:1).

This metaphor, used by Charles Handy in a BBC television interview in 1990, explains the danger awaiting organisations that do not stay awake and catch the winds of change that now seem to have fully replaced the post-World War II period marked by organisational stability and non-competitive markets. IBM has learnt the lesson. Pan Am too had it still existed today. Many companies that failed to anticipate the need to adapt to an ever-increasing changing environment, followed the paths of IBM and Pan Am and ceased to exist or experienced huge losses. Change has become pervasive and a single strategy encompassing the present and future provides the basis neither for running the business, nor for managing change (Abell, 1999).

Hence, an organisation today must focus on continuously adapting to its environment dominated by new innovations, technology, increased competition, and changing cultural values. The latter is probably the most difficult aspect of this new era that managers and organisations must face with increased care. The last two decades of management theory have seen an increased awareness of and emphasis on the organisation’s culture as an important factor not only in discussions of organisational efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity, but also in a wider context encompassing prevailing morale and ethics in our society.

This paper examines what role an organisation’s culture has in the process of change by specifically attempting to answer two main questions:

1. What is the meaning of organisational culture, and what is its importance in the context of organisational change?

2. Can an organisation change its employees’ behaviours and attitudes, and how would that affect the organisation’s culture?

By combining current management theory and contemporary examples of how organisations have tried to attack this issue, it shall be argued that organisations to some extent have the ability to change patterns of attitudes and behaviour within the workforce. This can change the organisation’s culture and may strengthen the chances of success in the organisation’s specific change processes. However, changing an organisation’s culture is a complex process that has no guarantee to be successful, and it is important to consider other factors as well if this is to be the case.


Organisation Culture and the Need for Change

Harvey & Brown (1996, p.67) define an organisation’s culture as “a system of shared values and beliefs which interact with an organisation’s people, structure, and systems to produce behavioural norms (the way things are done around here)”. This is a common definition of an organisation’s culture that has been adopted by many management theory writers. It is, however, a very vague definition. Many factors constantly interact and shape the organisation’s culture, such as the management, what technology is used, the organisation’s size and structure, and of course the workforce itself. The external environment, including the national culture, regional society and family, also plays an important part in shaping values, needs, attitudes and beliefs that are brought into the organisation by its members (Gettler, 1999). Hence the very definition of organisational culture implies that it suffers an ongoing process of change, as the society and the external environment is continuously changing and transforming, and all theses are intertwined.

But organisations may also feel a need to change or ‘modify’ the culture on purpose to adapt to these changes. There are plenty of theories and discussions in regard to whether organisations can and/or should do this. One theory by Hennestad, discussed by Gamble and Gibson (1999), actually states that the organisation is incapable of intervening in its own cultural development simply because it can not get a clear insight into the existing culture - it is too complex and subtle. However, it is not the aim of this paper to take this discussion much further. Rather, it is assumed that organisations do try to ‘modify’ their internal cultures in various ways, depending on the scope and type of change they are facing. Before looking at contemporary examples of how this can be done, it is important to firstly identify what main types of cultural changes organisations may face.

Theories of cultural change often are considered under two headings: revolutionary change and evolutionary change. According to Harris & Ogbonna (1999), revolutionary change refers to the processes wherein environmental (internal or external) conditions force the organisation intentionally or unintentionally to ‘manage’ the culture. This is close to the ‘original’ view by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) who in 1968 published the idea of two dual change strategies for organisations: “action planning” and “planning for strategic change” (Abell, 1999). The term “Action planning” can be seen as a predecessor to the current use of “revolutionary change”, and involves planning the necessary present and future actions to ensure operational success due to more or less sudden environmental changes. “Planning for strategic change” has simply become “evolutionary change” which involves continuously improving the organisation’s capability to meet long-term environmental changes, that is, to be better prepared for future situations (Harris & Ogbonna, 1999).

These two types of reactions to change do not exclude each other. Most organisations will experience both revolutionary and evolutionary change, and in both cases the organisation might feel the need to change its present culture by creating a better match between people’s attitudes and behaviours and the new demands resulting from a change program. This can - but does not always have to be - a chaotic process, which Overholt (1997) argues. Rather, it could be a process that, once embraced by the people, brings about lasting change - change that is passed on from generation to generation in a natural way (LLNL, 1999). This is what Handy saw as a must for future successive organisations - organisations that are flexible and constantly awake to changes in the environment: “When you are asleep, everyone else is awake and can interfere with your business” (Handy, 1990:2). Remember the frog that was lulled to its death! Peter Drucker also emphasises the need to continuously be prepared for changes, and to actively seek changes:

One strategy is practically infallible: Refocus and change the organisation when you are successful. When everything is going beautifully. When everybody says, ‘Don’t rock the boat. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ At that point, let’s hope, you have some character in the organisation who is willing to be unpopular by saying, ‘Let’s improve it.’ If you don’t improve it, you go downhill pretty fast (KCG, 1999).

It has been argued that organisational change is natural and inevitable, and that no matter what type of change is experienced, it can affects the organisation’s culture. This paper now looks at two contemporary examples of how people in organisations can be ‘changed’, and what impact that may have on organisations’ cultures.


Changing people: Changing the culture

In 1990, a different approach to safety was recognised at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNT) in California, USA. To prevent accident rates to go up, a “Grassroot Safety Leadership” change process was implemented and developed by ‘Culture Change Consultants’. The resulting cultural change is considered revolutionary by management, employees, unions, health and safety professionals and the industry. Not only has accident rates gone down, employees moral and commitment to the company has increased, management feels that the culture change has made their job easier, and workers compensation cost has gone down by 20%. In summary, a whole new safety culture has developed.

This example shows how changing the people in an organisation also changes the culture. The report from LLNT (1999) explains their achievement by:

…The idea is to change the culture and not merely address the problems as they occur. Expecting people to change their practices overnight is unrealistic. There has to be commitment to support these ideas long enough for them to impact the true culture.

Commitment, cooperation, information and time are crucial ingredients for the process of cultural change to become a success. The example from LLNT shows that organisations can change the people in order to change the culture. However, organisational change is, as mentioned, a complex process and there are no guarantees that the program will be successful. Harris and Ogbonna (1998) note that attempts to manage organisational culture can have a range of unpredictable and sometimes unintended consequences due to this complex process. Open and active rejection of proposed changes can disrupt the process and hurt the whole organisation if the change program is not carefully planned and implemented. According to Harris and Ogbonna, this is also the reason why many academics conclude that management can not, and especially should not manage its organisational culture but let it develop in a natural way.

There is still a case for arguing that an organisation adopting the concept of evolutionary change as a strategy towards long-term efficiency and effectiveness develops a culture where change becomes natural (evolutionary), and the workforce learns to become more receptive to new circumstances and demands for new behaviour. Samson and Challis (1998) argue that in many leading and successful firms where this concept is adopted, the work culture has evolved to such a mature level that people know well the behavioural standards and ethics that prevail, and take their responsibility for actions and inactions. These organisations demonstrate a clear link between managerial action and customer satisfaction, business growth, environmental management, safety performance, unit cost, employee satisfaction and shareholder value. Peters and Waterman (1995) also acknowledge that successful firms have a strong culture where people know the prevailing norms. Some might argue that strong cultures may hinder change, but Peters and Waterman (1995, pp. 77-78) argue that in general “excellent company values (…) almost always lead the organisation to be unusually sensitive to the environment and thus more able to adapt than its competitors”.

The Traffic Accident Commission (TAC) in Victoria also went through a change process in 1989, seeing a shift from a traditional public service entitlement culture to a performance culture, integrating business objectives with employee interests (Rance, 1998). Programs encompassing communication, training, involvement, rewards and feedback changed the employees’ behaviour and attitudes towards management and the work itself. Where an “us and them” approach previously prevailed, is today history.

Hewlett Packard started an evolutionary change process in the 1940s which was labeled “the people philosophy” or “the HP way” and aimed at creating and maintaining a work culture emphasising the individual employee’s dignity and worth. This process has not died out but is self-renewing and runs like a red thread through the company’s policies and objectives. A strong culture has developed by focusing on the people and encouraging certain patterns of behaviour and attitudes. (Peters and Waterman, 1995, pp. 245-46). However, a fine line exists between what is changing the culture and what is a natural development of the culture. Does the HP example above describe a long-term evolutionary change process or just a natural development of a flexible successive company?

Clearly it is possible to ‘manage’ the culture by changing people’s behaviour and attitudes, but again, it is important to realise that success in one change process does not guarantee success in another. Each change situation needs its agents, its carefully planned processes, involvement, cooperation, time, contents, and a bit of luck to succeed. Some organisational cultures may also need longer time to successfully change - if they do change at all. Take a look at yourself, for example. If you have a driver’s license, you belong to a certain culture. The organisation is the society, and the culture is people’s attitudes and behaviour in the traffic. When the TAC (Rance, 1998) from the previous example started its new change approach in 1989, it also involved trying to change its customers’ culture - the customers being people in the traffic, and the change desired by the TAC was (and still is) people’s attitudes towards alcohol and driving. The road safety campaign, with its shock advertisements and slick slogans, was revolutionary when it was first introduced. Now ten years later: have people’s behaviour and attitudes changed? Have you changed?

One last important thing to point out is that as the society changes and evolves, so does the concept of organisational culture, and what this stands for today may be close to irrelevant in next century’s organisations. Today’s graduates are used to change, expect change and no longer consider career paths within a single organisation. They look to how their employment meets personal values and needs, and this may have a huge impact on the future importance of organisational cultures (Hansen, 1998). Barrett’s (1999) belief is that people will be seeking to work in organisations that allow them to become all they want to be - to fulfill their potential. Handy (1990:1) argues that in the future “we don’t have hands anymore, just brains”, also referring to the development of a highly technical, professional and educated workforce that will transform the present notions of organisational culture and change.


Concluding remarks

In summary, organisational culture has been shown to be very receptive to changes in the internal and external environment. Whether an organisation experiences revolutionary or evolutionary change, its culture is likely to be affected. This may require changing employees’ attitudes and behaviour so that they fit into the change process. Successful contemporary change programs show that this is possible to do, but also that it is important to account for a good balance between employees’ and the organisation’s needs and goals. Finally, the organisation must realise that it exists in a society of continuous, rapid change, and that its workforce, internal culture, and structure may in a near future differ much from what it is today. It must constantly stay alert. That is, if the water gets too overheated, it must jump out of the bowl - not allow itself to be lulled to sleep.


Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the authors. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.



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Handy C., (1990:2), “Handy on Change”, Inside Organisations with Charles Handy, BBC TV interview, Vol 3.