Maggie Kenney, Kirsty Jordan, Karen De Miranda Candeia, Peopletoo: 7 minute read

Achieving sustainable culture and behaviour change*

‘Culture change’ is a phrase that is frequently mentioned when talking about a local authority’s change of direction. Yet, achieving culture change is notoriously difficult, requiring buy-in from staff and drive from the top. In this article, Peopletoo’s Maggie Kenney, Kirsty Jordan and Karen de Miranda Candeia discuss measures to achieve permanent change.

There’s no such thing as one ‘right’ culture – only a culture that allows an organisation to meet its established goals. Therefore, the identification of the “right culture for the right organisation” relies on understanding what the organisation wants to achieve.

Unsurprisingly, in the face of restrictive budgets and the need to do more with less, the public sector is increasingly required to deliver successful and sustainable transformation. However, current figures suggest around 80% of efforts to transform do not fully meet their initial objectives. (1)

This could be down to a number of reasons, including “change fatigue”, or a lack of resources and capabilities needed to make major changes. Both have become apparent in a constantly evolving and cash-strapped public sector. (2)

What is culture and why change?

The idea of ‘organisational culture’ is somewhat intangible. It is subjective and difficult to quantify, meaning results can be hard to shape - and even when you do understand it, the cultural barriers can seem great.

Changing culture is one of the most difficult leadership challenges because it is innate to the fabric of the organisation. According to Forbes(3), an organisation’s culture comprises of an ‘interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions'.

In social care, the need for cultural change may arise due to a change in leadership, or in response to external pressures such as Ofsted, where criticism of the authority leads to a change in direction.

There is also an argument that ‘culture’ is linked to ‘success’. Indeed, several recent studies suggest that although the majority (85-90%) of respondents think culture is critical to success, less than half believe their organisations do a good job of achieving the desired culture. The same respondents who see their organisation’s change programs as falling short tended to say culture was not a priority in transformation programmes. (4,5)

Unsurprisingly, changing the habits of an organisation can take some time, as results and success rely on getting things done through people. Shaping an organisational culture relies on using a very clear culture-shaping model and proven organisational development techniques. It also relies on leaders having the necessary softer skills, emotional intelligence, self-awareness and leadership style to make it happen.

Achieving the right culture and behaviour

Failure to achieve the right culture and behaviour in order to successfully drive the transformation is a key reason that change is not sustainable and that long- term benefits are not realised.

It is imperative that an organisation undergoing significant change firstly recognises, and then addresses, areas where it is evident the desired culture and behaviour does not exist.

When identifying culture change requirements, Peopletoo uses both informal and more formal methods to assist. Informally, we have conversations with leaders and frontline staff, while more formal processes can include ‘guided conversations’ and ‘cultural web analysis’.(6) The signs we look out for include whether an organisation is:

  • Aligned at all levels in what its goals are
  • Open to change
  • People focussed
  • Innovative rather than risk-averse
  • Accountable
  • Focused on personal leadership rather than operational management.

Even before we arrive, organisations often have some insight into what needs to change – but it is often worth remembering that leaders are part of the prevailing culture and may, to varying degrees, have been shaped and influenced by it.

The battle for hearts and minds

To achieve cultural change, winning “hearts and minds” and altering the way people think and behave is required. This can be achieved through unlocking old habits and reinforcing, applying and adopting new behaviours and ways of working.

This is not a change that will happen overnight. It will require tailored interventions and techniques, along with a commitment to change across all levels of the organisation, supported by consistent re-enforcement over a significant period. Evidence suggests that transformation is six times more likely to succeed when senior leaders share aligned messages about the change effort with the rest of the organisation. (2)

The key to gaining buy-in is ensuring all key stakeholders are involved from the beginning, and that you work together in shaping the vision and objectives. Whilst there are often competing demands, there is always common ground, and ultimately, senior leaders usually want what is best for the organisation and the people they serve. Finding this common ground is vital.

Once the change programme is established, it is important to continue to focus on gaining and maintaining buy-in. Taking a programme management approach and having communication as a key workstream will support this. Also, it is imperative that culture and behavioural change is driven from the core of an organisation. However, there can be benefits to using an external party to identify the areas of weakness and to challenge the ‘status quo’.

Through our experience in supporting organisations to design and deliver sustainable transformation, we have adapted Senn Delaney’s five-point academic principles – Diagnose, Unfreeze, Reinforce, Apply, Measure – and created a five-step model to assist in achieving the desired culture change.(7)

The Five-Step Culture and Behaviour Change Model

  • Diagnose the current culture and identify gaps against the desired future state. To do this, utilise a variety of tried and tested assessment tools and methodologies, such as observation, case file analysis, surveys, culture diagnostic tools, and workshops/ interviews with staff
  • Unlock existing habits using insight-based training and interventions, which have an emotional as well as an intellectual impact
  • Train teams, with programmes tailored to individual service areas, which introduces the approach and engages staff at all levels
  • Apply the approach through intensive work alongside teams to embed new ways of working, creating champions and innovation sites, before rolling the approach out
  • Measure the change through a set of agreed indicators, which are developed following an assessment of the organisation’s readiness to deliver transformational change. This assessment becomes the baseline against which change can be measured and reported.

Critical success factors

There are several factors that are critical to achieving the right culture and behaviour to drive forward sustainable transformation:

  • Strong leadership to influence and drive the change from the front
  • A clear vision and strategy supported by a robust organisational development plan
  • An inclusive approach that respects the strengths and expertise of frontline staff – appreciating that staff who feel a sense of ownership are more likely to engage and improve
  • Continued and consistent communication of key messages to drive buy-in and engagement
  • Sharing and celebration of success.

In our experience, where these critical success factors have been implemented, there has been a range of supporting activity included within the transformation programme, which is outlined below:

  • Develop a strategy that covers both the ‘soft’ and the ‘hard’ aspects of organisational development including behaviours, skills, culture, structures, processes and leadership
  • Put in place and utilise a range of leadership and management tools
  • Develop a clear vision establishing the right environment through practices, processes and systems to support and enable it
  • Identify your ‘missionaries’ early on – those who will be the agents and drivers of the required

    Changes (see Box 1.)
  • Publicly identify managers as enablers – using the skills and experience already in existence throughout the organisation and empower managers to act, as well as giving them clear lines of accountability
  • Link departmental, team and individual
    objectives to the values and behaviours expected to deliver the vision
  • Communicate – create an organisation-wide
    dialogue and consistently reinforce the message and expected behaviours
  • Measure change – the what and the how and
    learn from it and use it to shape your next actions
  • Reward positive behaviour
  • Leaders must be positive role models, modelling the new expected behaviours at all times.

Common mistakes
Every organisation is different, but the most common mistakes when it comes to achieving culture change are:

The key to gaining buy-in is ensuring all key stakeholders are involved from the beginning

  • Not enough interest and investment in understanding the current culture sufficiently
  • ‘Familiarity blindness’, where leaders are part of the existing culture and have been shaped by it. This is why it is often essential to have an external partner to support the diagnostic phase
  • Making assumptions about what the culture and challenges are
  • Not giving the first two steps (diagnose and unlock) due regard and jumping instead to “staff need to be trained”.

In many organisations we have worked with, the focus has been on training staff – but how do you unlock behaviours if the organisation has little understanding of what those behaviours are? Equally, how do you build on strengths if you don’t know what they are? Finally, how do you target your organisational development intervention(s) appropriately?
If you don’t have answers to any of these questions – or fail to understand the relevance of these questions – how can your aims and objectives be culture shaping and insight based?

Instead, there should be a robust diagnostic of the current culture, with staff heavily involved in this process. In all cases, up-front investment of time and resource will be paid back through the success of the culture change.

Effective leadership

Crucial to avoiding such mistakes is effective leadership. Here, you want leaders who “walked the talk” and modelled the values of the organisation. For example, in an organisation with a strengths-based approach strategy, it would be leaders who were person-centred and empowering, and who worked alongside staff with an understanding of their expertise and what they had to offer.(8)

Leaders who can help navigate a successful culture change encourage a positive attitude, build buy-in and commitment, and can help build the confidence of staff through mentoring and coaching.

In our view, in many organisations we have worked with, not enough support has been given to leaders, particularly at the middle management level, to enable them to provide strong leadership. In our opinion, investment in managers and an effective leadership programme is key to successful culture change.


Positive culture and behaviour can motivate employees to perform and to engage with transformation programmes, aligning behaviours to common values and purpose. The right culture can increase productivity and responsiveness, secure buy-in to objectives and build trust. On the other hand, the wrong culture can cause significant issues including lack of engagement, unsustainable changes, poor performance, morale and high staff turnover. The importance of achieving the right culture and behaviour cannot be overstated, particularly in achieving sustainable transformation. It is one of the hardest factors to get right, but undoubtedly one of the most valuable. ■


Box 1. The perfect missionary
Missionaries are people from within the organisation that really understand the vision, objectives and required culture change and can help drive the change and instil the vision in their peers. The role can vary across organisations and is sometimes formal, with these people supporting the shaping of the programme plan, design and delivery of training or running forums. In other organisations, it is more informal, with missionaries being used day-to-day to spread messages within teams. Ideally, organisations should identify missionaries at all levels and across all areas of the business.

The diagnostic and unlocking stages can really support the identification of these missionaries as, during these phases, a real understanding of the culture within individual teams and services is developed, and it is possible to identify those with the right mindsets.


  1. Allas T, Checinski M, Dillon R, Dobbs R, Hieronimous S, Singh N. Delivering for citizens: How to triple the success rate of government transformations. McKinsey & Company 2018. Available at: public-sector/our-insights/delivering-for-citizens-how-to- triple-the-success-rate-of-government-transformations# [last accessed January 2021]
  2. Aguirre DA, von Post R, Alpern M. PricewaterhouseCoopers. Culture’s role in enabling organizational change. PriceWaterhouseCoopers 2013. Available at: https://www. Role-in-Enabling-Organizational-Change.pdf [last accessed January 2021]
  3. Denning S. How do you change an organizational culture? Forbes 2011. Available at: sites/stevedenning/2011/07/23/how-do-you-change-an- organizational-culture/#6bd60ec39dc5 (last accessed January 2021)
  4. Bershin J, Wakefield N, Geller J, Walsh B. Global Human Capital Trends 2016. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. Available at: human-capital-trends/2016.html [last accessed January 2021]
  5. Maor D, Reich A, Yocarini L. The people power of transformations. McKinsey & Company 2017. Available at: our-insights/the-people-power-of-transformations [last accessed January 2021]
  6. Johnson G. Managing strategic change—strategy, culture and action. Long Range Planning. 1992. 25(1):28-36
  7. Comprehensive culture-shaping process uses a unique approach. Senn Delaney. Available at: methodology.html [last accessed January 2021]
  8. Leadership in strengths-based social care. Social Care Institute for Excellence 2019. Available at: https://www. [last accessed January 2021].

*Article originally appeared in Leadership Issues in Social Care. Leadership Issues in Social Care journal presents the best in thought-leadership and opinion, helping to shape future practice and share learning. The journal focuses on the implications of new legislation, emerging technology, case studies of best practice and more.

It is provided free of charge to Directors of Social Care in the UK and a subscription can be purchased here;