Communicate to change behavior ahead of organizational values and culture

The ultimate objective of most communication activities is to change behavior. To achieve an employee behavior change, many communicators work on the principle that they need to change employee attitudes first, including their culture and values. But change experts say it is better to focus on attempting to directly change employees’ behavior. Therefore, you should communicate to change behavior ahead of organizational values and culture.

Even if attitudes are changed, habits may be too strong to break and therefore behavior may not change. And if behavior does change, it may take a while to happen.

This is especially important in communicating to reduce accidents or improve service quality. Communicators can provide information that directly affects behavior, eg about rules; company policies and practices; procedures and systems; rewards, recognition and incentives, etc.

Since people like to be consistent with their attitudes and their behavior, their attitudes are likely to become consistent with their new behavior (or else they will change their job if they don’t believe in what they are now doing). The effectiveness of the communication can be evaluated by measuring behavior before and after the communication effort.

Employee values and organizational culture are considered vital to organizational performance, but are difficult to come to grips with. Instead, it is more effective to change behavior first, and then the desired values and culture are likely to follow.

But firstly, you need to ensure your change communication strategy first aligns with the external business environment. This conveys important authenticity to your employees. They can perceive these pressures for themselves, becoming aware of what is happening elsewhere. Otherwise, they will invariably have doubts about your messaging when you start communicating at the team and individual level.

Changing values

The personal values of employees are widely considered to influence their workplace behavior. Values are the conscious, emotional desires or wants of people that guide their behavior. Most employees’ values are generally consistent with the values of their peers.

However, when it comes to change management, the focus should not be so much about corporate values but about the hard, day-to-day business of changing the behavior of frontline employees.

Communication from senior executives doesn’t give values to employees. Instead, values emerge from the way employees do their work, which is a function of the way they are supervised. It takes thousands of repeated behavioral episodes for a particular value to be firmly established. The absolutely critical issue is not how to communicate a value, but to get the initial behavior change to occur among the frontline employees.

To achieve this, supervisors can be targeted with face-to-face communication about the performance of the local work area, especially how their performance compares with other similar work areas. This is done by winning over the first-line supervisors. It requires constant vigilance to ensure employees are achieving the new behavior and over-riding the pressure from the old value. Employees will return to the old way instantly if the pressure is reduced. This pressure can only be maintained by the person close enough to do it – the first-line supervisor.

Overwhelming corporate experience shows that values are not successfully imposed from the top down. Values are more likely to emerge from the bottom. For instance, attempts to use corporate slogans to emphasize new values imposed from above result in a cynical employee response: employees took ‘Quality in everything we make’ into ‘Quality is everything we fake’. A company’s product quality was so low, its employees mischievously changed their unofficial version of the corporate slogan from “We make it nice” to “We make it nice because we have to make it twice.”

The most immediate and pragmatic approach is to start by getting some of that pressure working for management and not against it – by making the new behavior consistent with an already existing employee value. Their strongest values relate to their own local work area. The performance of the new behavior can be consistent with their concern, loyalty and respect for themselves and their co-workers. This can be accomplished by communicating how the performance of the new behavior compares with that achieved by other similar areas. 1 At the same time, the same set of values can be advocated and modeled by management. In this way, the values are reinforced and management and supervisors are seen to be aligned with the employees’ values.

Changing the culture

Senior managers in many organizations believe the key to good organizational performance is to have a good organizational culture in place. Culture comprises shared patterns of thinking. This is generally accepted, but the relationship is complex. For instance, a US study of the cultures and financial performance of 200 companies over 11 years showed that about half the time, strong cultures were associated with excellent performance – but half the time they were not. What’s more, the study found highly respected companies with strong cultures, but with poor financial performance. 2 The study showed that over the long term, corporate cultures associated with strong financial performance do share a recurring theme: they facilitate change.

This view is supported by the findings of a survey of 300 European companies, which showed that the largest gap between companies that were good and bad at change arose because the good companies learned from change and institutionalized their new knowledge, building it into their culture and performance assessment. 3

Organizational culture usually encompasses the values, beliefs and customs of the organization, including the vision shared by employees. The organizational culture largely influences the way most employees consistently behave, ‘the way we do things around here’, including decision-making, how the organization competes, how much risk it tolerates, the emphasis placed on ethics and fairness in its transactions and how people treat or evaluate one another’s actions and contributions to the organization. 4

Elements of organizational culture may include:

  • Stated and unstated values
  • Overt and implicit expectations for employee behavior
  • Corporate customs and rituals
  • Stories and myths about the people and history of the organization
  • Climate – the feelings evoked by the way employees interact with each other, with outsiders and with their workplace environment
  • Metaphors and symbols – may be unconscious, but can be found in the other elements of culture.

It is generally accepted that culture influences behavior, which in turn affects organizational performance, and in a circular way, culture is in turn affected by behavior and performance. Organizations place great importance on culture because of its perceived impact on performance. An example of the importance of culture is the way that culture clashes are a leading cause of merger failures. Poor culture fit is considered the main cause of most large-scale merger disasters, resulting in billions of dollars worth of lost shareholder value.

Since culture change is difficult to implement; it is best to change behavior first because that is easier, and then culture change will follow. The way to change to the desired behaviors is to change the people, incentives, performance management and organizational structure.

When employee positions are changed, or when new employees are recruited, they influence culture changes in response to the input of their fresh ideas and new attributes. Changing incentives through recognition and reward programs goes a long way to change culture to the desired new directions. Likewise, performance management activities, such as managing by objectives, help to shape the new, desired behaviors and outcomes, reinforcing their importance and creating new norms and values about the appropriate ways to act and compete. Changes in organizational structure also can affect behavior and lead to cultural change. Flatter organizational structures, for example, usually lead to larger spans of control in which most employees, especially managers and supervisors, must exercise more autonomy and discretionary decision-making than before. The need for autonomy then becomes a core cultural value. 5

Three broad levels of change

  • At the most basic level, organizations can achieve new outcomes without changing the way people work. For example, the organization may divest non-core assets to focus on the core business.
  • At the next level of complexity, employees may need to adjust their practices or to adopt new ones in line with their existing mind-sets in order to reach, say, a new profitability target.
  • Thirdly: if the only way an organization can reach its higher performance goals is to change the way its people behave across the board, it has to achieve cultural change as well. Employees will only alter their mind-sets if they see the point of the change and agree with it – at least enough to give it a try. However, management needs to make the effort to change attitudes at the same time as changing behavior so that employees can see the reasons for the changed behavior and agree with those reasons – or at least give them a try. If people’s actions are inconsistent with their beliefs, they suffer from cognitive dissonance, a psychological term meaning they are uncomfortable about the inconsistency, and are likely to solve this problem by changing either their attitudes or their behavior. If the employer expects changed behavior, it is likely that changes in attitude will fall into line with the employees’ desire to align their attitude with the new behavior.

Reinforcement of the new behaviors is essential. The surrounding mechanisms (e.g. reward and recognition systems and performance measurement) must be in tune with the new behavior. If an organization’s directives for new behavior aren’t reinforced, employees are less likely to adopt the new behavior. For instance, if managers are expected to spend more time on coaching junior staff, but such coaching isn’t included in their performance evaluation, they won’t bother.

Senior managers tend to forget that employees must acquire the new skills. Many change programs make the mistake of expecting employees to behave differently without teaching them how to do it properly. For instance, the organization may want them to improve customer service, but if little consideration had been paid to customers in the past, the employees may not know what to do differently and probably wouldn’t understand what a successful outcome would look like. Likewise, if they are expected to communicate better in the workplace, they would most likely need training to improve their interpersonal communication.

Required skills to change behavior

How can employees best be equipped with the skills they need to change their behavior?

  • First, they need time. People can’t learn merely by listening to instructions – they must absorb the new information, practice it and integrate it with their existing knowledge. In practice, this means their learning sessions should be spread over time, not jammed into one session. It is best to break down the formal teaching into chunks, with time in between for learners to reflect, experiment and apply the new principles. Large-scale change happens only in steps and through repetition. PR practitioners could help in preparing the new information material.
  • Second, people assimilate information much more thoroughly if they are obliged to describe to others how they will apply what they have learned. This obliges them get their mind around the practical details of the new information.
  • Above all, employees must see the people they respect modeling the new behaviors actively. Consistent role models are the most powerful way to change behavior. Obviously, senior managers, especially the CEO, are the most important for this, but there are role models at every level who must also ‘walk the talk’ because their example is a powerful influence on their peers. Employee behavior is deeply affected not only by individual role models but also by the employees’ peer groups – and therefore change must be meaningful to key groups at every level. 6
Personal change
  • Incidentally, if you are trying to change your own personal behaviors and habits, this article may be help you to understand why and help you to start on the path of making the changes you want to make. Also, I have just come across a book on how to make personal changes of behavior, which looks promising. The book is reviewed in this article.

Overcoming change resistance

Resistance to change is a predictable response when employees are informed of change plans. From my own experience, I can vouch that no organization I have ever worked for has managed change well. Employees can tell you many stories of classic change bungles in their organizations, which have built ongoing their resistance to change, but I won’t dwell on those.

Overcoming change resistance is an important element of change management and communication. US change expert Wendy Hirsch refers to evidence-based research forming her understanding of change resistance. From published research referred to in her 2019 article on overcoming change resistance, she considers that resistance to change is a “complex phenomenon that involves structural, technical, social, psychological, cognitive, and contextual factors.” Hirst recommends taking three steps to overcome change resistance:

  1. Move beyond expectations that acceptance is good and resistance is bad. In considering the various ways and reasons employees respond to change — there is more than resistance, as shown in the diagram, “Responses to change,” below from her article.
  2. Focus on creating an enabling change environment vs. managing employee resistance. A key strategy for “overcoming resistance” may be to avoid provoking it in the first place. She recommends intentionally designing your change approach to build or support readiness, as shown in the second diagram below “Think readiness, not resistance.”
  3. Identify the root causes of resistance to change.

Why have I provided this information from Hirsch’s article? It’s because communication plays a key role in change management. You can read her article to gain insights into where communication can be initiated to overcome the first major hurdle to change – employee resistance (including managers!). It’s pointless to try to communicate to change behavior ahead of organizational values and culture. Change resistance first!

Communication role

Where does communication come into this cycle? Organizational communication can directly help to change operational behavior. But firstly, the most effective move is for affected managers and staff to be actively involved in the planning and execution of the changes. Employees are much more likely to support change if they have gained some ownership of it in the planning stages.

The benefits and the urgency of change need to be communicated. One way to provide some reassurance to employees who are nervous about change is to inform affected people of the aspects of their work that will be preserved. Preserving the good and familiar during times of change can reduce resistance to the new. It is also important to look for the positives among the negative aspects of change. For instance, certain jobs might be eliminated or changed (a ‘negative’), but the displaced employees may be guaranteed to be the first to be trained for the new jobs.

Obviously, sound communication and information-sharing are vital to reducing resistance to culture change. Without a purposeful communication plan aimed at those directly affected by the changes, an organization is asking for trouble. Rumors will consume valuable time and detract from ongoing, everyday performance. Misinformation will increase uncertainty and anxiety, further affecting performance negatively.

The provision of widespread training and practice opportunities to help managers and supervisors to improve their interpersonal communication should be integral to organizational change. It will be instrumental in helping concerned employees feel the organization has empathy towards them and is supporting them.

Leaders have vital role

Leadership is central to the process of reducing resistance to culture change. Leaders are vital to changing and managing key people, incentives and the organizational structure. Probably most important of all is leading by example, which sends powerful messages to employees. Leader behavior is intensely symbolic. It tells people what is important, and therefore public relations practitioners should be prepared to guide and advise their leaders on the example to set, and probably more aptly, the behavior they should eliminate.

Communicate about the few things that really matter

One valuable insight to remember is that organizations tend to make more changes than necessary in order to achieve the desired results, without focusing on the changes that really matter. This makes the change effort more difficult. Leaders seem to think that under-performing organizations are doing everything badly. Rather than doing everything well, high-performing organizations do the important things, or enough of the important things, well. Underperforming organizations often do many important things fairly well, but not with enough intensity. Doing something 60% of the way is often enough; doing something 40% of the way is often no better than doing nothing at all. The extra 20% makes all the difference. Fortunately, you can do a lot of things wrong as long as you do the important things right and drive hard enough on these to make the difference. Seek the fewest changes for the greatest result. 7 There is a lesson here for communicators – it is better to communicate about the few things that really matter, rather than spread the themes and focal points too widely.


  1. Larkin, TJ and Sandar. Communicating Change: how to win employee support for new business directions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994, p. 216.
  2. Kotter, John P. and Heskett, James L, Corporate Culture and Performance. New York: Free Press, 1992, reported in Larkin, TJ and Larkin, Sandar. Communicating Change. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1994, p. 214.
  3. The Weekend Australian, “Change handled better in-house”, 15-16 July 2000, p. 48 on AT Kearney survey.
  4. Hrebiniak, Lawrence. Making strategy work: leading effective execution and change. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005, p. 261.
  5. Hrebiniak, pp. 259-285.
  6. Lawson, Emily and Price, Colin. “The psychology of change management.” The McKinsey Quarterly, 2003 Special Edition: Organization.
  7. Dickhout, Robert. “All I ever needed to know about change management I learned at engineering school.” The McKinsey Quarterly, 1997 Number 2.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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