The Role of Culture in Organizational Change

by Molly Penn

We are living in historic times. Two major disruptions—a worldwide pandemic and the renewed energy around the social justice movement—are transforming how organizations approach their work and their people. Culture is shifting on a global level, and nonprofit leaders are feeling the domino effects as they consider how to change their organizations’ cultures, and themselves, accordingly.

Understanding the difficulty of change

Sources of organizational change can be internal—such as the transition from one executive director to another—or external, like the forces at play in the world today.  Given the rate at which we all deal with change on a daily basis, you would think it gets easier, but managing change remains challenging.

Why? Because change is an emotional experience.

Change guru William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, focuses on the phases of transition that individuals endure when they experience change. In his theory, change happens to individuals and can cause resistant behaviors. Transition is the process individuals experience as they go through change, and it includes three phases.

1. Letting go:

The announcement of a change or the change event itself marks the beginning of an ending—thus transition begins. Feelings can include initial excitement, anticipation, loss, sadness, anger, disillusionment, discouragement, disbelief, and frustration.

2. Neutral zone:

This neutral “wilderness” between letting go and acceptance of a new reality is a time in which much creativity and problem-solving capability can be tapped. Individuals often feel curious, lost, uncertain, anxious, overwhelmed, fatigued, or fragmented. [Hint: this feels like where we are right now!]

3. New reality:

The movement to accepting a post-change world does not happen overnight nor on its own; rather, leaders must gracefully encourage and nurture a transition into the new reality. Individuals who enter this phase may feel ambivalent at first and then excited, energized, renewed, and engaged.

Assessing change readiness

Change management is the process of ensuring a smooth transition from an organization’s current state to a desired future state. It is the most important leadership muscle to flex; yet because change is ripe with emotions, it is also the most difficult to manage.  We often talk about the dual role of nonprofits leaders: Instigating change; and managing daily operations.  Instigating change is relatively straightforward (start a strategic planning process, or directional shift), but managing it is much harder, given that for change to happen, people have to start acting differently and there are feelings that get in the way of that.

It can be helpful to start by determining if your organization is ready for change. This is done either through interviews with staff and leaders, or through survey instruments or both.  This information will shed light on the most appropriate change and communication tactics based on the needs of your organization. It also will reveal cultural nuances to help you build a change roadmap best suited for your organization’s values and behaviors.

1. Surveys

Designed for a large audience, surveys pose close-ended questions using a rating scale. They are intended to reach a variety of stakeholders, from senior leaders to front-line staff. Sample questions might include (select all that apply):

·       Senior leaders have created a clear vision for this change.

·       Senior leaders support the change initiative.

·       I understand what my department must do to make this change successful.

·       My team has a plan in place to get ready for the change.

·       I have adequate resources to help the project succeed.

2. Interviews

Discover common attitudes and beliefs about change among senior leadership or staff with this anecdotal assessment tool. Interview questions are open-ended, revealing richer information than surveys. Examples include:

·       Can you explain how the proposed change aligns with the organization’s strategic goals?

·       How well do you think your peers and you have communicated the rationale for the change?

·       How well do you think people understand and embrace the rationale for change?

·       Describe the organization’s past experiences with change efforts.

·       How will you measure success for this project?

·       What do you think are the project’s major risks?

Facilitating change efforts

Once you understand to what extent your organization is ready for change, you can begin the work of moving from your current to desired state. The following are approaches we recommend for facilitating change efforts in your organization.

1. Appreciative Inquiry

(AI) focuses on what works and how to create more of it. An offshoot of the positive psychology movement, AI is designed to create generative conversations within the system about how to build more of what works.  It espouses the notion that we find what we seek – if we seek problems, that is what we find; whereas if we seek energizing activities, we can build from those.

2. John Kotter’s 8-Step Model

This model moves an organization through an iterative process toward change. Each step helps to first create a climate for change, then engage and enable the whole organization, and finally implement and sustain change.


This framework represents the five tangible outcomes that people need to achieve for lasting change: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. The first three outcomes comprise the change enablement zone of pre-contemplation, contemplation, and then preparation. The last two outcomes create the engagement zone of action and maintenance.


Regardless of which of the above approaches you use, culture can make or break your change management strategy. Understand your organizational culture and leverage it to ensure change is adopted quicker and maintained for the long-term.

We are ready to partner with you as you use culture to navigate change. Our team of consultants enables nonprofit and foundation leaders to thrive in a changing world. Contact us for help with culture change efforts or large-scale change management.

Drop in for Office Hours and talk with our experts!

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