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Saturday, July 6, 2024

We built this culture (so we can change it): Seven principles for intentional culture change.

Hamedani, M. G., et al. (2024).
American Psychologist, 79(3), 384–402.


Calls for culture change abound. Headlines regularly feature calls to change the “broken” or “toxic” cultures of institutions and organizations, and people debate which norms and practices across society are now defunct. As people blame current societal problems on culture, the proposed fix is “culture change.” But what is culture change? How does it work? Can it be effective? This article presents a novel social psychological framework for intentional culture change—actively and deliberately modifying the mutually reinforcing features of a culture. Synthesizing insights from research and application, it proposes an integrated, evidence-based perspective centered around seven core principles for intentional culture change: Principle 1: People are culturally shaped shapers, so they can be culture changers; Principle 2: Identifying, mapping, and evaluating the key levels of culture helps locate where to target change; Principle 3: Culture change happens in both top-down and bottom-up ways and is more effective when the levels are in alignment; Principle 4: Culture change can be easier when it leverages existing core values and harder when it challenges deep-seated defaults and biases; Principle 5: Culture change typically involves power struggles and identity threats; Principle 6: Cultures interact with one another and change can cause backlash, resistance, and clashes; and Principle 7: Timing and readiness matter. While these principles may be broadly used, here they are applied to the issue of social inequality in the United States. Even though culture change feels particularly daunting in this problem area, it can also be empowering—especially when people leverage evidence-based insights and tools to reimagine and rebuild their cultures.

Public Significance Statement

Calls for culture change abound. Headlines regularly feature calls to change the “broken” or “toxic” cultures of the police, the workplace, U.S. politics, and more, and norms and practices across society are hotly debated. The proposed fix is “culture change.” But what is culture change? How does it work? And can it be effective? This article presents an emerging social psychological framework for intentional culture change, with a focus on behavioral change and addressing societal disparities in the United States.


Here are some thoughts:

People as Changemakers:  The concept of "culturally shaped shapers" can be empowering to everyone in the organization, not just a top-down approach to leadership. It emphasizes that everyone, from executives to frontline employees, has the power to influence the culture.  This empowers individuals and fosters a sense of ownership.

Multi-Level Mapping:  The idea of mapping the different cultural levels (individual, team, organizational, societal) is insightful. By understanding these interconnected layers, leaders can pinpoint areas for focused intervention and ensure their efforts have a cascading effect.

The Power of Alignment:  The emphasis on both top-down and bottom-up approaches is crucial. When leadership aspirations align with employee experiences,  genuine cultural change flourishes. Leaders who actively listen and incorporate employee voices create a sense of trust and shared purpose.

Leveraging Values:  Building upon existing core values is a smart strategy.  Change feels less disruptive when it complements established principles. However, confronting deep-seated biases is also important. Leaders need the courage to address outdated norms that may be hindering progress.

The Inevitability of Conflict:  The acknowledgment of power struggles and identity threats during cultural change is an important reminder.  Leaders should prepare for resistance and be open to navigating these challenges constructively. Transparency and open communication are key.

The Ripple Effect:  The highlight that cultures interact is valuable. Leaders must consider how their organization's culture interacts with external forces,  like industry norms or societal shifts. This awareness can help them anticipate potential challenges and opportunities.

Timing is Everything:  The importance of timing and readiness resonates deeply.  Leaders need to assess their organization's receptiveness to change and tailor their approach accordingly.  Forcing change before the groundwork is laid can backfire.