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Why is it so difficult to change an organisational culture and what can you do about it?

It is often stated that culture is really all about behaviours.  Therefore, changing behaviour is critical to changing culture.  The challenge is to change behaviour in a sustainable way. 

In an ideal world behaviour change would happen like this…


‘’I know exercise is good for me

Therefore, I am going for a run’’


Wouldn’t it be great if as humans we react positively and change when we learn something that could be good for us?


But, more often we know that we should do something but we choose not to…


‘’I know exercise is good for me’’

‘’But I prefer to stay at home and watch Netflix’’


The same is true for organisations, in fact, changing an organisation’s culture is one of the most difficult leadership challenges. That’s because an organisation’s culture comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions.


In an organisational context a new set of behaviours stuck on the office wall will not in themselves successfully drive change!  


Why is this?  


Let’s explore an important concept from neuro-science which explains why behaviour change is such a challenges. Often the heart and mind do not agree!  The brain has two independent systems at work. We have the emotional side that is instinctive and feels pain and pleasure and then we have the rational side that is rational and reflective.  


Using an analogy by Jonathan Haidt in his book the ‘Happiness Hypothesis’ he uses the metaphor of the elephant. The rider is our conscious, cognitive, logical mind driven from the head. It knows what makes sense, plans for the FUTURE and uses conscious resources.  Perched on the top of the elephant it holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But their control is precarious because the rider is so small compare to the elephant. You will have experienced this if you have ever overeaten, slept in, not done your accounts. The weakness of the elephant is clear it’s lazy, skittish and looking for the quick payoff (Netflix) over the long-term payoff (going for a run). It represents our unconscious, intuitive, emotional brain.  It wants to know how things will feel and is driven from the heart and gut. The elephant is interested in what is happening NOW. And responds in an automatic / habitual way.


When change fails normally it is because of the elephant.  The rider cannot keep the elephant on the road for long enough to reach the destination.  The elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the rider’s strength.


This is really useful to know when setting goals which require people to change their behaviour!  In neuroscience this is called temporal discounting or current moment bias.  In order for the reward in the future to be effective, it has to be greater than the reward now – and the further in the future the reward is available, the greater the reward has to be to have the desired effect. i.e. Given a choice we do not weigh reward in the future as highly as reward now! So having clear goals and defining ‘what’s in it for me’ for all levels of staff is vital.  Often the vision is just defined at a senior level.  The culture change programmes that are the most successful invest in engaging with staff to define what behaviours will and will not drive the strategic changes required. 


As a leader of change, you need to appeal to both the rational and the emotional.


Lindsey Agness, CEO of Change Corp and one of UK’s leading change specialists, talks about the reasons someone might want to change but be unable to transition successfully (and what you can do about it) in Change Out Loud’s latest podcast episode.

For example, how do you connect people with the right motivation? Setting the vision, tapping into the emotional side of individuals, and taking some practical steps can lead to adoption and the right behaviour change.


Listen to the full interview here:


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