The Hard Truth of Culture Change: Not Everyone Will Fit

S. Chris Edmonds is the founder and CEO of the Purposeful Culture Group, which he launched after a 15-year career leading and managing teams. He’s a speaker, author, and executive consultant who helps senior leaders build and sustain purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He also served as a senior consultant with the Ken Blanchard Companies for 24 years. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Amazon best sellers The Culture Engine and Leading At A Higher Level with Ken Blanchard. His upcoming book with Mark S. Babbitt, Good Comes First, guides leaders to create an uncompromising work culture where respect is as important as results. Good Comes First launches on September 28, 2021. Learn more at

Changing an organization’s work culture is nearly simultaneously incredibly demanding and profoundly gratifying for senior leaders.

Change is demanding because it takes time, energy, attention, and coaching. It’s demanding because real change requires leaders to define their organization’s desired culture–by formalizing its servant purpose, defining its values and behaviors, and carefully incorporating the company’s strategies and goals.

Culture change is also demanding because it requires senior leaders to model the new values and behaviors in every interaction—and then requires those senior leaders to hold everyone in the organization accountable for also model those defined values and measurable behaviors.

At the same time, culture change is gratifying because once the culture change gains traction, people of all generations are happy—even excited—about coming to work in a purposeful, positive, productive work culture. Talented, engaged people stay with your organization. Equally talented and engaged people also want to join your organization. And as we all know, talented, engaged team members and leaders deliver excellent products and services that wow your customers.

Many of the leaders and team members in your organization today—some of whom have been with the company a long time—will be an excellent match for your new culture. The best of them will continue to bring their skills, contributions, and the best of themselves to work every day. Moving forward, they will routinely show respect for their peers and enthusiasm for the new culture while they continue to drive results.

And some will not. Despite the best of intentions, as you implement intentional culture refinement, some people in the organization will not appreciate the new culture.

Four Ways People React to Culture Change

To ensure your desired culture takes root and becomes self-sustaining, senior leaders must make sure that everyone—leaders and team members alike—embraces and demonstrates your desired values and behaviors.

So, in the early months of any change process, you must be observant. You must monitor actions more than words. And you must note which leaders, teams, and individuals fully embrace the new culture—and which do not.

In our upcoming book, Good Comes First, my co-author Mark S. Babbitt and I describe typical reactions to culture change. As you look on objectively, you will notice most players fall into one of four different groups:

Early Adopters

The early adopters are aligned players across your organization who respond positively and emphatically to the change and the specifics of your new rules. They promptly embrace and demonstrate your defined values and behaviors.

Through their enthusiastic alignment to the new culture, members of this group say, “You’ve clarified what a good citizen looks like, speaks like, and acts like around here! I’m all in!”


The second group are players who know in their hearts this change process is not for them. They do not see the benefit of treating others respectfully. They might think values are fluff—irrelevant to the dog-eat-dog world of work.

Let them go. Sure, it will be tough to see longtime contributors, friends, and colleagues leave. But tolerating players who do not believe in the new culture—and who will not model your desired behaviors—is a formula for disaster.

When these folks self-select out of your organization, they smooth the path toward a respectful, productive culture for others by removing themselves as speed bumps and detours.

So, gracefully and lovingly, set them free. Or, as WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge says, “Share those employees with the competition!”

women's leadership

Changing an organization’s work culture is nearly simultaneously incredibly demanding and profoundly gratifying for senior leaders.



This third group, made up of those who mentally quit but physically stay, can be a change champion’s worst nightmare.

Actively pushing against the new values and behaviors, these players will challenge you. Then they will carefully watch how well and how consistently you enforce the new direction. The folks in this group are counting on nothing changing—so they figure their comfort zones need not change, either. They hope that, despite all the talk, the same work will be done the same way with the same dysfunction.

This group most likely knows working the old way is inefficient. But for them, keeping that existing system in place is easier; it’s more comfortable.

Just as important for many of the members of this group, working the old way maintains the existing—typically unfair—informal workplace power structures. Typically, these few have power or influence over the many—and wield those advantages in often unkind ways. That is not an environment where Good Comes First thrives. Just as obvious, those people will not thrive in a Good Comes First environment.

What is the best way to address this “opt-out-and-stay” group? Model and celebrate your newly defined values and behaviors and serve as a mentor while redirecting those exhibiting misaligned behaviors. Once the opt-out-and-stay types see leaders do not tolerate undesirable behavior by anyone across the organization, they will have two choices: 1) Catch up to the early adopters, or 2) Join those who opted-out and leave.

Middle Ground Watchers

This “in the middle” group of players represents those neither opposed nor unopposed to the new way–but they do not quite know how to fit in. Perhaps their more introverted nature prevents them from going all in. Perhaps they are optimistic that the culture will shift but do not want to be disappointed if change does not happen. Or maybe they have known disappointment before when change programs were announced but never took hold. For these and many other reasons, members of this group might initially seem disengaged.

In our experience, however, those stuck in the middle are just looking for a reason to believe.

To help validate the hopes of folks in this group, do the accountability work. At every opportunity, intentionally model, coach, measure, celebrate, and redirect their behaviors through mentoring. This steadfast work will help those in this fourth group quickly understand this change effort is not a Band-Aid. It is the real deal—a new human operating system, starting now. When leaders and early adopters hold themselves accountable, most of this fourth group will wholeheartedly embrace the Good Comes First culture. They will eventually see themselves as a talent match, and so will their managers, mentors, and leaders.

Across the organization, this talent match process requires diligent retention and attraction efforts. As you begin your culture transformation, retain skilled players who embrace and model your valued behaviors. And as you move further toward a Good Comes First culture, attract and hire people who demonstrate the needed skills and model your valued behaviors. After all, by proactively matching the talent to your culture and the culture to your talent, you leverage your employees’ brains, skills, and hearts.

And those who don’t demonstrate the values and behaviors? Those that won’t be coached or mentored? So your new culture can grow in a healthy direction, lovingly set them free.



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