Copyright 2002 (c) weLEAD, Inc.

Transformation Within Organizational Culture:
The Gap Between Paper and Reality

By Brenda Bertrand


        'Transformation' has become a buzzword in the organizational behavior industry. From Who Stole My Cheese to seminars on accepting change, there are a plethora of sources which introduce and offer self-help and management techniques to encourage personal and organizational transformation. In theory and on paper, transformation is an appealing concept with its restructured flow charts, diversity programs, and team-building exercises. In reality, organizations are filled with old cultural norms that are as tough as rubber, which make new and innovative ideas difficult to embrace. Transformation, like oil on water, can live comfortably on the surface of an organization resistant to penetrating the fiber and makeup of the culture. Transformation is a major undertaking that comes at a high price. But when it is implemented, the rewards surpass the painstaking effort. Prior to transforming a culture, it is important to understand what 'culture' and 'organization' are.

        The culture of the organization speaks of the values, beliefs and behaviors that are shared by the members of the organization (Kennedy). An organization is a social entity that is goal directed, with a consciously structured activity system and a relatively identifiable boundary . E. H. Schein, a leading theorist on organizational culture, defines 'organizational culture' as a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learns as it solves its problems. These solutions are successful enough to be considered valid and, therefore, should be taught to new members of the organization as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. Combining these definitions it is clear that the organizational culture provides the interpretation of core beliefs and serves as the basis by which decisions are made, acceptance is granted, rejection occurs, and truth determined. Each organization has a culture that is unique.

        A positive organizational culture reinforces the core beliefs and behaviors that a leader desires while weakening the values and actions the leader rejects (Kaufman 2002). A negative culture becomes toxic, poisoning the life of the organization and hindering any future potential for growth. Obviously, there is an inevitable bridge joining organizational culture and the level of success it enjoys (Peters and Waterman 1982).

        The culture of any organization is formulated and impacted by several variables. The most obvious variable is the 'leader' of the organization, whether that leader is a parent, CEO, pastor, or principal. All things flow from the head. The values of the leader of any organization are reflected in the culture of the organization.

        The second variable is the influence of the members of the organization—those joined to serve its mission. Members have an important impact on the organization’s culture. According to Kaufman, "An organization is only as good as its people". These first two variables influence from "within" and thus are referred to as internal cultural variables (Schein 1992).

        Lastly, there are external variables. The culture of an organization can be influenced by cultures from "without". This influence comes from the environment. For instance, industry and government systems can impact an organization’s internal culture. Although the impact of external variables may not be seen or felt directly, they are critical to the understanding of organizational culture and should not be ignored.

        Imagine traversing through a jungle in Africa and coming upon a remote tribe. You are greeted with a new language and immediately encounter new beliefs assumptions, and behaviors. Your challenge is to change the cultural of this tribe. Where would you begin? How would you undo what has been accepted as normal? How would you convince the hierarchy and members of the tribe that change was good and needed?

        As difficult as this task is to imagine, the task of transforming an organizational culture is just as overwhelming. The culture of an organization is like a river. It can be fluid, strong and consistent, serving as a lubricant while guiding its members in the right direction. In contrast, a river can become stale and toxic, silently killing those who drink at its shore (Kaufman 2002). Regardless of the state of the river, it is nearly impossible to turn its direction. Whether vibrant or toxic, changing the culture of an organization is a daunting task!

        As an organization develops, successes and failures can be measured. When dysfunction is detected and cultural change is called for, cultures do not readily adjust. When a toxic culture exists, major overhaul is needed.

        An organization’s culture can endure while change is going on all through the organization. "Leaders die, products become obsolete, markets change, new technologies emerge, management fads come and go. but core ideology in a great company endures as a source of guidance and inspiration" (Collins and Porras 1998).

        The transformation of an organization is often seen as the leader’s responsibility to address but the subordinate’s task to receive and implement. On paper this seems ideal. The leader will cast a new or improved vision. Supposedly, as told by many trainers, the subordinates may resist at first but with consistent, forceful and at times manipulative motivation techniques they will eventually give in. Zap! A new culture will emerge. But in reality this has proven to be a false notion. Most 'transformation leadership' has resulted in pseudo and temporary change, which in fact simply serves as a thin veneer over a new superficial, frustrated, and increasingly toxic culture.

        A serious mistake made by many leaders is to try to forcefully change the mindsets of those within an organization. Managers often force, rather than lead, change. However, organizational transformation imposed on followers first is resisted and resented by the followers. Successful leaders first impose change on themselves and then cultivate it in others.

        The Center for Organized Change in San Diego identifies several pitfalls when implementing organizational change:  1) Managers lack integrity. Their words and actions are inconsistent. 2) Unrealistic expectations are set with no system to measure success or failure.  3) Systems remain unchanged. 4) Managers are impatient with the process. Most managers want results immediately and are not committed to investing years to see results. 5) Management often tries to force the issue through buzzwords and force. 6) Leaders resort to training as the main tool of transformation.

        Again, note from the above pitfalls the problem of imposed transformation and subordinate compliance. In reality no one is really changing! The leaders are imposing and the subordinates are 'giving in'. When attempting to implement change, such leaders assume there is something wrong with the commitment and values of the subordinate. This is the main fallacy in most transformation models. There is an unhealthy emphasis on analyzing what is wrong in others—particularly those below the leader in the hierarchy and their subordinates. This wrong emphasis results in creating or intensifying a toxic culture within the organization.

        Many managers have been affirmed in the philosophy that the manager is right and the subordinates are wrong. This is not only seen in business organizations, but in schools, church organizations and in the home. Parenting 101 at its finest can be seen in the boardroom, classroom, and pulpit.

        Popular transformation theory involves treating people like machines that need to be fixed. It places all responsibility for real change on the subordinates while the leader spends his or her time rethinking systems, analyzing breakdowns, destroying morale, and recasting the vision. This skewed concept is incorrect in its emphasis, process, and results.

        Legitimate transformation is organic. It must be cultivated and nourished. The leader sets the example in the transformation process. Anything short of this simply creates a culture of compliance rather than commitment.

        Peter Senge greatly impacted the way we view organizations when he introduced us to a new paradigm–creating organizations that are built around learning. In an interview with Fast Company he said, "Perhaps treating companies like machines keeps them from changing, or makes changing them much more difficult. We keep bringing mechanics when what we need are gardeners. We keep trying to drive change–when what is needed is to cultivate change." (Webber 2002) In order to be a leader who cultivates change there must be digging and discovery.

        The self-mastery mindset of the gardener is developed in the first of Senge's five learning disciplines (Senge 1990). Senge's approach brings the leader to a place of self-analysis, re-educating the way the leader thinks regarding organizational culture. The leader is called to distinguish him or herself as the trendsetter within the organization. The truly liberated leader, who is championing the cause of transformation, reaches for the garden shovel rather than the presentation pointer, the mirror versus the magnifying glass. The transformational leader wears the mantle of humility, and has the mindset of a farmer rather than a mechanic. Senge says, "Leaders must approach change as if they were growing something rather than changing something".

        True transformation begins within the heart and mind of the leader. The leader sees the organization as a garden where life can spring forth. Through personal development the leader becomes a true learner. Change begins where learning and unlearning begins. Senge admits, "Most people in the organization other than the leader can't make deep changes; they act out of compliance rather than commitment." Organizations rely on the transformation of its leaders rather than the transformation of subordinates or systems.

        The process that actually implements change often moves from the leader to small groups and then to the rest of the organization. However transformation can only leave paper and theory and come into reality once the leader of the organization is liberated in his or her own learning and self development. The leader becomes a learning leader and then the learning leader cultivates a learning organization. In that garden transformation is inevitable!



Collins, J. C. and J. I. Porras (1998). Built to last: successful habits of visionary companies. London, Random House.

Daft, R. L. (1998). Organizational theory and design. Cincinnati, South-Western College Publishing.

Kaufman, R. (2002). Prometheon Builds a Company Culture That Serves, Sizzles & Succeeds.

Peters, T. J. and R. H. Waterman (1982). In search of excellence. New York, Harper & Row.

Schein, E. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline. New York, Currency Doubleday.

Webber, A. M. (2002). "Learning for a change." Fast Company 24: 178.


About the author:

Brenda Bertrand has traveled extensively in Asia, Central America and the Caribbean as an instructor and speaker.  With a passion for youth and leadership development, Brenda embodies the heart of a personal coach and trainer to empower people to tackle their future and vocational pursuits with excellence.  Formerly the Dean of Women at Teen Mania’s Honor Academy, Brenda instituted a female-specific program designed to inspire single women in their college years to identify and aggressively pursue their unique mission in life.  Brenda recently completed an esteemed mentorship program under the direction of the founder and president of Teen Mania Ministries, Ron Luce.  She graduated from Oral Roberts University with a BA in communication in 1993 and is currently completing her graduate studies in Communications at the University of Texas at Tyler. Brenda recently completed the Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People seminar as part of a graduate leadership class at UT Tyler.

Brenda Bertrand can be contacted at brenda.bertrand@teenmania.org




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