How to Change Culture By Changing Behavior

How to actually bring about meaningful and impactful change within your organization

Affecting Cultural Change

In the last essay, I introduced concepts related to culture building. Now I’ll shift my attention to culture change by targeting undesirable behavior carried by the members within the group, including leadership behavior. This is likely where most of us will be putting our efforts because it’s not until then that we come to understand that we have culture issues. SHRM president and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. recently described the importance of organizational culture by sharing this comment. “Billions of wasted dollars. Millions of miserable people. It’s not a warzone—it’s the state of the American workplace.” We know the cost of toxic culture. According to a 2019 report published by SHRM, turnover alone can cost companies billions of dollars and employees leave toxic cultures. This post will provide guidance related to rebuilding or changing culture to get the desired outcome, whatever that may be in your specific context.  

We know the cost of toxic culture.

Key Points:

  • Data helps you learn, and subsequently pivot or change as needed

  • Minimize gaps between what we say the culture is and how the people within the culture actually behave

  • Hold accountable by reinforcing behaviors that match culture and extinguish undesirable behaviors

  • Ensure that values are not weaponized or misused which results in negative outcomes

  • BSA assesses behavior at each level and makes the necessary changes to produce the desired outcomes

Collect Meaningful Data

In other words, know what matters most to those that are within your culture. This could look very different depending upon the specific context and organization that you work within. For example, you could have two very similar companies that do the same type of work but have very different cultural values and expectations. Organization one might be scaling and preparing to go to market, while organization 2 wants to “grow big by staying small.” These 2 companies, however similar on the outside, must operate differently and build different cultures to meet their individual goals and objectives. I really like how Frances Frei puts it in her HBR podcast interview. She argues that companies should be collecting devastating data. I think what she means is that we should be collecting data to understand the groups that we’ve perhaps not supported within our cultures. In my area of work, this might mean understanding how we’ve potentially inhibited growth and achievement with certain groups such as behavioral therapists. Collecting these data could help to understand new priorities with regards to cultural values that should get adopted. These devastating data could be the key to you learning more regarding the people that you’ve been entrusted to serve. Leaders have great responsibility, one of which is supporting and mentoring their people and stewarding their careers well. Data helps you learn, and subsequently pivot or change as needed.  

Collecting these data could help to understand new priorities with regards to cultural values that should get adopted.

Collect & Analyze Meaningful Data

Create New Cultural Values and Expectations

Frei recommends letting your staff members author these new values alongside you and the other leadership within the company – yes, the same staff that provided the devastating data on potential issues will be helping to blaze a trail to rebuilding the culture. I can affirm this strategy through my experience. Back in 2012, I was a brand-new entrepreneur after spending my entire career working with kids with autism in educational settings. I started a company to provide services to this population however I did not have the business skill set to get off to the great start that I was hoping I’d get. That led to numerous operational mistakes. One day, one of my operational leaders had a tough conversation with me about the culture and how we were doing – this is probably no secret, but it was not great. This was a turning point in my journey as an entrepreneur where I came to recognize the importance of building a culture of operational excellence that’s commensurate with a culture of clinical excellence.

You need to excel in both to build a good culture overall. She provided the data and I allowed her to help me author new values to step up our game. While this was a reactive strategy, I’m encouraging you to solicit this type of data by being proactive in working with your staff to better understand how they perceive the culture. The likelihood of successfully adopting new values must be high when the values were authored by those that need to adopt them. This aligns perfectly with what we discussed in our other essay on culture (link here). Remember that culture could be defined as “how we do things around here,” so we need the behavior of the members to be aligned with these new cultural expectations. We cannot have these gaps between what we say the culture is and how the people within the culture actually behave.

Culture cannot be merely spoken into existence.  

Hold Everyone Accountable

Each organization and company is different, so these recommendations need to be individualized based on the specific context. This could be done by having these new values on a performance scorecard or asking managers to reinforce specific cultural behaviors as they observe them. This also means that you have to have a plan to extinguish the undesirable behavior that occurs within the culture. Extinction can be defined as a withholding of reinforcement with previously reinforced behavior. For example, let’s say that staff in the past have been promoted within the organization based on reasons other than merit. Company leaders might consider having new process expectations when it comes to promotion guidelines within the company. Perhaps what gets reinforced is an increased rigor in the process rather than promoting staff based on “popularity.”

Another example – inappropriate complaining. In my specific industry, this can destroy cultures and everyone’s responsible when it comes to rebuilding cultures like this. Staff might appropriately share their needs, desires, or concerns with leaders, but when they do so appropriately, their needs are not met. Then what happens is they complain, and like many things in life, the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” What you just taught your staff is this – ask and you shall not receive, however complain, and I’ll likely reinforce your undesirable behavior. You bet the next time they need something, they’ll go right to complaining because that’s the behavior you reinforced. Also, their colleagues will likely do the same because people learn observationally.

In my company, we had a Monday morning survey that went out to our staff. We basically wanted to assess their needs that week so that we can provide an appropriate way in which they can share their needs and we can meet them. While we could not always meet their exact needs or preferences, we made every effort to and either met the need or gave them an honest rationale as to why we were not able to if that was the case. This helped us build so much cultural trust with our staff. Our goal was to meet all the needs by Monday afternoon so that our staff could FOCUS on serving their patients with excellence. When you learn as a leader to take care of the needs that matter to your staff, they can do their jobs without the barriers that were previously getting in their way.  

Keep Your Employees Satisfied

Watch Values Closely

Often times, values can be weaponized to use Frei’s language. At Uber, one of the cultural values is “Toe Stepping.” They want good ideas and if managers are not sharing the ideas of those that report to them, employees are encouraged to go over their bosses to share these ideas that could help the company. That said, this value or behavior can be weaponized and misused. Be watchful and mindful not to reinforce inappropriate use of the new values that you’re adopting. In my last company, one of our values was “Relentless Optimism.” While I appreciated my staff when they demonstrated this value, I could see how it could be misused. For example, let’s assume that things are not going well, one could hide behind relentless optimism and ignore detrimental issues that could affect the health and well-being of the company (and its shareholders, patients, staff, etc.).

We also believed in being radically candid with one another.

We also believed in being radically candid with one another. Again, this can easily be weaponized and misused to hurt others within the company. Yes, be candid, but also be sure that you’re showing those you’re candid with, how deeply you care about their professional development. Another example of weaponizing values. Riot Games has a value “Default to Trust.” That’s likely one that got misused in their recent allegations of sexual misconduct within their organization. You can begin to envision scenarios where leaders need to be critical that values are being used as intended.  

Why BSA and Organizational Culture (OC) are Inseparable 

In all of the reading, writing, and thinking that I’ve done on these subjects, one key theme emerged in how I reconciled BSA and OC. Both of these subjects might seem disparate, but they are absolutely inseparable. BSA can be the vehicle by which you standardize culture building and change to accomplish the wildly important goal of having a great workplace culture. By analyzing each level of performance and optimizing the opportunities by manipulating the right variables, you can change behavior in a lasting way. This then translates to a changed culture.

By analyzing each level of performance and optimizing the opportunities by manipulating the right variables, you can change behavior in a lasting way.

Using BSA allows you to assess behavior at each level and make the necessary changes to produce the desired outcomes. For example, you can use BSA to produce aggregate products that get selected by the selecting environment. If you’re a behavior analyst working in autism treatment, this might mean using BSA to build a clinical model that produces the right outcomes that your payors and patients demand and expect. Any inconsistency in the system could lead to weaknesses that result in rejected aggregate products which could lead to the organization’s downfall. This describes the concept of a metacontingency, which I would highly recommend studying to those that have an interest in learning more regarding BSA and OC. 


Beard, A (Host). (2020, June 2). Great Leaders Use Tough Love to Improve Performance (No. 743). In HBR IdeaCast. Havard Business Review.

SHRM. (2019, September 25). SHRM reports toxic workplace cultures cost billions. SHRM. Retrieved December 3, 2021, from