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Culture and change


Disciplines > Change Management > Diagnosing change > Culture and change

Task or people | Risk or safety | Self or others | Helping them change | See also


Culture is a perennial problem in change projects and needs to be carefully understood, especially if there is any expectation or desire to change the culture as a part of the project. Culture includes common values, attitudes and consequent behaviors. It directs how people make decisions and how they react to change. It can also vary within an organization, for example a 'leading edge' attitude may be found in research departments and 'customer first' value in service areas.

There are many areas of preferences that people have that shape cultures. There are, within these, a few which are of particular influence around change.

The focus on task or people

Understanding the balance of focus on task vs. person will help you understand the way the leaders of the organization are likely to make decisions.

Task first

When there is a focus on task before people, then change may well be harsh and thoughtless. People will be hired and fired without a second thought. They will be expected to work long hours for little extra work.

People first

When the leaders have a people-first focus, then they may hold back from difficult decisions that will hurt others. When collegiality comes first, then a company that has thrived on the good times may perish when things get tougher.

The focus on risk or safety

Depending on the risk bias, people will seek or avoid risk. Change often appears to be very risky.


A company where there is a focus on innovation and taking risks will find change more acceptable and easier to adopt. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Their acceptance of risk as a part of the job will enable them to take the scary steps of going along with a change. If they are used to taking risks in areas where they have expertise, such as product design, then they may take that risk tolerance into areas where they do not realize the real risks.


A company that is risk-averse will likely try to put off change for as long as possible, at least as long as it takes for not changing to be become riskier than moving, and possibly longer.

The focus on self or others

When people focus may vary between self and others, particularly in the stress of change, then their approach may vary significantly.


When people who put themselves first are faced with change, then they will happily sacrifice others in order to save themselves. A self-oriented culture may be seen where people are rewarded for individual (rather than team) performance.


When people put the well-being of others before themselves, they will sacrifice themselves before others. This is seen in change where a manager whose department has been severely changed makes sure all of his or her people are safely transitioned before thinking about their own future careers.

Helping them change

In helping the company find balance, then your influence will depend on their start point. If they are task first, then show them how ignoring people will lead to tasks done badly or not at all. If they are people first, show them how avoiding hard decisions will ultimately harm more of the people they are trying to protect.

When working with risk-seeking companies, seek to moderate their determination to dive into change with insufficient understanding of what it really entails. When talking with the risk-averse, highlight the risks of not changing or not changing enough.

If you are working with a self-centered culture, then help them see how helping themselves now over others will lead to a harder time for them in the future. For other-centered people, reframe their selflessness towards the good of the overall organization as well as their immediate colleagues.

See also

Culture, Task vs. Person preference, Risk bias, Self vs. Others preference

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