Image courtesy of James Fryer/theispot.com

Few habits are harder to break than “the way we do things around here.”

Organizational culture is notoriously difficult to change, in part because it reflects people’s values — their deeply held beliefs about what is good, desirable, and appropriate.1 Relationships can complicate matters further. When colleagues are embedded in informal networks with others who share and reinforce their values, they often become entrenched rather than open to new attitudes and behaviors.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Those same networks can also help leaders identify and overcome obstacles to cultural change and discover unexpected allies.

Our research and practical experience have shown that many leaders aren’t aware of this potential, largely because traditional assessments of organizational culture tend to focus on finding commonality.2 One popular approach is to use surveys to assess employees’ values, attitudes, norms, and behaviors and then average the responses to gauge where the organization as a whole stands. Another approach is to conduct deep interviews and then craft personas illustrating how “typical” employees’ values guide their behaviors. Because these approaches reveal central tendencies, they miss powerful insights about where people differ in their values. Rather than calculating an average score — say, a 4 — on a given value, leaders need to know where the pockets of 3s and 5s (and even the clusters of 1s and 2s) are. And they need to see who is interacting with whom within and between those pockets and clusters if they want to persuade people to embrace new cultural priorities.

Combining survey data with network analysis is a useful way to gain that insight. (See “Map Your Team’s Values.”) Mapping patterns of collaboration in an organization provides a kind of X-ray view of its inner workings. It shows, for example, where people are separated by silos in a network, who is isolated on the periphery, which individuals are opinion leaders, and which ones are uniquely situated to connect people and integrate different values.3 Once leaders know all that, they can pursue cultural change in a more targeted manner.

We have seen more than 40 examples of leaders taking this approach over the past five years. By analyzing what’s worked for them, we have identified five ways to drive culture change through informal networks.

1. Unearth the Subcultures

Organizational culture can describe the predominant beliefs, values, and behaviors of the organization as a whole, but subgroups like functions, divisions, or geographies have their own cultures as well.4 Leaders often think about the culture of their piece of the organization and take action at that level — the CEO for the whole organization, senior executives for their specific units, and so on. But culture is only partially influenced by formal organizational structures; it is also shaped and reinforced by subnetworks of employees who may represent one slice of a formal unit, for instance, or be spread across many different units. Leaders who can see the diversity of values that exist in different cultural subnetworks can take much more precise action to support or change these subcultures.

Let’s look at an example. At a global consumer packaged goods company that had recently made a large acquisition, top leaders were asked to identify the most important priority for the newly integrated company. Instead of showing consensus, they produced a list of 18 different top priorities, many of which were in conflict with each other.

Next came a network analysis and a culture survey asking employees to indicate which was the real top priority. The most-selected priority was “drive strong growth in existing brands,” but agreement was far from uniform. Rather than simply mobilize around this as a unifying priority (a typical action after a standard culture survey), leaders turned to network data to better understand how people’s informal connections shaped their beliefs.

This revealed two distinct opportunities for change. The first focused on well-connected cultural outliers: influential people who held strong beliefs that diverged from those around them. Leaders asked passionate proponents of branded products to connect with these cultural outliers to hear their concerns and then share their own enthusiasm for and successes with branded products. Seeing others’ enthusiasm often helped the outliers reconsider their own beliefs and become more productive partners, and it sometimes also helped brand enthusiasts better see their own blind spots.

In one case, a product manager who was a strong proponent of a branded food product had grown frustrated with the small budget allocated to her every year for important promotional projects. Despite their high ROI, many of these projects were routinely denied funding, but it wasn’t until she saw the results of the network and cultural analysis that she realized she was being blocked by an outlier: a well-connected senior manager in the division’s finance group who had negatively influenced the funding decisions made by several of his subordinates.

After giving the problem some thought, the product manager invited the finance manager to an annual competition the company hosted, where consumers brought creative dishes that used the company’s product in innovative new ways. The dishes would be judged by a panel of tasters, several of whom were in both managers’ networks. The lighthearted and sometimes raucous event opened the finance manager’s eyes to how much consumers loved the product and how much his own colleagues cared about it. Before, he had considered the product to be stale, but the product manager’s unthreatening approach gave him space to adjust his beliefs. He soon became a supporter — and his decision making became more closely aligned with the cultural priority of promoting growth in existing brands.

The second opportunity for culture change focused on disagreements among subnetworks, which leaders sought to reframe as expressions of different underlying aspirations, without passing any judgment on what was right or wrong. Rather than ask any subnetwork to change its views, leaders worked with them all to discover how they each could contribute productively and advance the organization’s strategy. The network data helped leaders identify the best-connected people in each subnetwork, with the goal of bringing them together to generate ideas that would diffuse well to others.

Some subnetworks were encouraged to push even harder in the direction in which they were already leaning. In one instance, this meant creating a team of employees who were much more excited than others in their product group about developing brands that were entirely new. They were tasked with using their skills in product development, consumer research, and materials science to pursue bold ideas that were not tied to existing products. Their efforts were positioned as a complement to the overarching strategy, not a departure from it, which helped the new team strike out in new directions while retaining the ability to reach back to harness expertise from others who were more committed to existing branded products.

2. Find Your Real Cultural Leaders

For years, senior leaders have been taught that they have a key responsibility to define and diffuse culture.5 As a result, they often invest considerable effort in crafting powerful statements on important new values or behavioral expectations, and they then either communicate them directly to employees or cascade them down the leadership hierarchy.6 Formal leaders do facilitate culture change, of course, but our work reveals that they don’t do it alone. Informal influencers deep inside the organization are critical — but often hidden — enablers of change. Enlisting their help is far more efficient than taking a top-down approach.

Many leaders cascade messages through offsite meetings that bring managers together to clarify values or priorities. Progressive companies might also include employees whose opinions seem respected by peers. Unfortunately, while these additions may create a sense of being inclusive, our research has shown that by guessing who is important, companies typically miss at least half of their true cultural influencers.

This is a critical oversight. Most employees learn about culture from informal conversations that signal which colleagues they should take seriously, what to care about, and “how we do things around here.” And network influencers shape those conversations considerably. Executives and senior leaders tend to connect well with others at the top of the hierarchy but poorly with those at the bottom. In contrast, informal influencers have limited reach into senior levels but widespread impact everywhere else. In one organization we studied — a 1,100-person division at a well-known manufacturer — the top 50 informal influencers had ties with 60% of the employees, whereas the top 50 senior leaders had ties with only 31%. (See “Formal Versus Informal Influence.”) If you were going to invest time and money in critical change efforts, why would you focus on the group with half the reach that the other one has?

When an organization resists change, informal influencers can form the nucleus of broad-based movements that may succeed where top-down approaches are likely to fail. Here’s an example to illustrate how that can work.

One global bank struggled with developing new customer-focused technologies because different functions valued their own specialties but denigrated others. To spearhead a cultural shift, leaders used network data to identify 80 informal influencers in four functions: technology infrastructure, software development, marketing, and customer service. They were selected not only because they were well regarded by many in their home function but also because they had ties to influencers in other functions. The organization also recruited a number of disgruntled customers who personified emerging markets that the bank did not yet serve well: a gig-economy millennial who never carried cash, a micro business entrepreneur, and so on. Leaders brought the influencers and customers together in a design thinking program.

In a series of workshops, attendees were split into teams of eight (comprising two people from each functional area). Each team worked with a disgruntled customer, whose presence quickly transformed employees’ attitudes. Instead of pointing fingers at one another to deflect blame as usual, team members found themselves drawn into understanding the customer’s underlying needs. They engaged in “What if?” thinking and quickly came to envision new offerings the bank could explore. The ideas were important, of course, but the real win from these workshops was the way they helped people understand the value that colleagues in other functions brought to the process.

Once the employees’ minds were opened, the workshop leader asked them the question that he had been holding back: How should the bank’s culture change to support this kind of customer-focused innovation? Having spent all day working with people from other functions, attendees saw how they were stronger together. Although the verbiage differed, many of the responses gathered from the various workshops pointed to the same desired values: respect for others’ positions, joint accountability for competitive success, and joint ownership of the customer experience.

After engaging in these workshops, the informal influencers felt ownership of the values they had cocreated and, in the ensuing weeks and months, spread them through local conversations within their functions. As they shared their personal excitement about the new possibilities, they inspired others to see cross-functional collaboration in this new light. The change-initiative leader reflected, “We have tried design thinking efforts around customer needs before, but things always fizzled out. Finding the influencers and bringing them together was the thing that made this such a success.”

3. Shine a Light on Hidden Tensions

Leaders of change efforts have long been counseled to form a powerful guiding coalition that can address employee resistance.7 But that’s easier said than done. Small, hidden disagreements throughout an organization have a way of slowly and quietly killing change initiatives — the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. Analyzing network and cultural data can bring these tensions to light so leaders can manage them.

For example, a technology organization we studied had been plagued by problems as it sought to drive a cultural change and had struggled to pinpoint sources of resistance. The CEO conducted a broad listening campaign, complete with town halls, but his well-intended efforts to persuade people to change by hearing them out and addressing their concerns seemed to make them less willing to talk about their values, for fear of being publicly corrected. As a result, nothing changed.

A new CEO brought a renewed emphasis on culture, but this time with the goal of making dissent and disagreement more constructive. A combination of network and cultural data uncovered two kinds of problems: (1) toxic misalignments, where cultural influencers with very different values interacted in negative and dysfunctional ways, and (2) unresolved standoffs, where cultural influencers had positive connections with one another but disagreed about fundamental cultural values.

One of the toxic misalignments involved strong disagreement about monetizing user data; some influencers felt that selling customer data to third parties was inappropriate, while others supported doing it on the basis that it simply helped third parties market more efficiently. The former group viewed the latter as unethical, and the latter group took great offense. Their conflict spilled over into meetings and other interactions that had nothing to do with data monetization, undermining progress on a range of fronts. A senior executive stepped in and arranged to meet with important influencers on both sides. “Pretend that you are just about to retire,” she said. “In an ideal world, what accomplishment regarding customer data can you imagine that you would be most proud of?” She asked people to write down their answers.

When she read the responses aloud, they had far more in common than anyone would have guessed. The underlying tension wasn’t between doing what was best for customers and what was best for the company. No one was out to exploit customers, but people had arrived at different conclusions about what was ethical. After some discussion, they began to explore ways to generate more benefits for customers through data sharing and how that could be accomplished while respecting their privacy. Now that they had agreed on the overarching value of respect for customers, their tension was productive.

Like marriage counselors, highly skilled facilitators know that an appeal to a higher shared value can resolve a deadlock, but only after uncovering value misalignment and discovering who sits on which side. Network analytics can be used to identify where the influencers are on each side of a disagreement; they are always distributed throughout the network and never in a single role, function, or geography. Analytics can also be used to determine the nature of the influencers’ interactions — positive, neutral, or negative. Leaders can then see and address dysfunctional relationships that are fueling the conflict.

Unresolved standoffs, in contrast, involve influencers who have no reason to mistrust each other but whose disagreement about a cultural value harms their productivity. Here’s an example that we found in the same technology company, after a restructuring brought three disparate functions — organizational development, process improvement, and software development — into the same unit. Despite good intentions and shared objectives, six months later, the new unit had made little progress on joint projects.

The fundamental problem was a three-way disagreement about the most important priority to guide their joint efforts. Should it be people, processes, or technologies? Unable to make headway, the functional groups went off on their own, devised and promoted their own approaches, and threw partial solutions over the transom at each other. The people in these groups liked each other personally but couldn’t understand why the others didn’t see things the same way.

After identifying a core set of influencers, the unit leader brought them together for a workshop. There, he laid out his vision for how each functional group could play a crucial leading role at different points of a hypothetical project. He then split people into multifunctional teams to discuss examples of actual interactions that had diverged sharply from this aspirational model. Each team brainstormed on what might have happened differently had they followed the leader’s vision. Through this process, they learned about each other’s values and priorities and saw how each could take leading roles at different times. Because the leader had picked influencers to attend, the new shared values and priorities that emerged made their way back to the larger population and catalyzed a cultural shift to a more collaborative unit.

4. Evoke Positive Emotions

Traditional approaches to cultural change often assume that the process is rational: Leaders identify new values and educate employees about them, using anecdotes, examples, and compelling logic, in hopes of persuading them to commit to new ways of working.8 But our research shows that culture spreads most effectively through network connections that have an emotional aspect.

In particular, people who prompt positive emotions in their colleagues excel at getting others to adopt desired cultural values. For example, in the R&D division of a petrochemical company we studied, individual contributors were far more likely to adopt cultural priorities if they were propagated through supervisors with whom they had a positive, energizing network tie. With that knowledge, the company started training first-level supervisors to become more skilled as “energizers.” They learned how to engage people in realistic possibilities that captured their imaginations and hearts, for example, and how to help others see how their efforts contributed to an ambitious plan. Nine months later, new data revealed far greater adoption of the new cultural values among individual contributors.

In contrast, people who evoke negative emotions, such as fear or resentment, are very good at propagating unwanted cultural norms or stifling the spread of desired values. Leaders in one business unit of a large technology company gathered network data about the people with whom respondents were reluctant to share early-stage ideas or differing points of view. When the top executive reviewed the results, he concluded with dismay, “We have a culture of fear.” Despite the fantastic talent in his organization, many people avoided speaking up because they didn’t want to get shot down. The company’s creativity, risk tolerance, and market presence had suffered.

Analysis revealed that less than 5% of top leaders and 8% of key experts were collectively responsible for a majority of employees’ fearful responses. Without identifying these individuals by name, we shared the results with the organization’s leaders and subject matter experts more broadly. Through a series of discussions, a common set of ideas emerged around how work was assigned, how input was sought, how advice was framed, and how disagreements were handled. A set of training sessions followed for all experts and leaders, not just the fear generators (whose identities were kept anonymous). Leaders learned to seek engagement rather than demand compliance, while experts acquired skills in active listening and conflict resolution. In both cases, accountability partners and peer-group follow-up sessions ensured that they followed through.

The analysis also revealed the 80 most fearful employees, who represented only 2% of the whole but felt that fear existed in almost all of their interactions. Identifying these employees was an important step, because without realizing it, fearful people play a role in maintaining a culture of fear, through the stories they tell. Leaders established new practices to encourage more accountable behavior on everyone’s part — for instance, curbing the spread of rumors and gossip. They also counseled the fearful employees directly, helping them recognize how disproportional their reactions were. Because their attitudes often influenced others, this had a calming effect on a broader swath of the network.

5. Give Adoption the Time It Needs

How long it takes to master new cultural norms or behaviors can vary by a surprising amount. Leaders may see slow or uneven adoption as new cultural ideas’ failure to spread, when in fact it may be a function of how tacit or complex the values are. And while networks play an important role in speed of adoption, faster isn’t always better.

Consider an innovative life sciences company that was losing crucial millennial employees, who complained about work pressures interfering with their weekends. Facing tough competition for top talent, senior leaders realized that their traditional assumptions about employee productivity and career advancement were alienating the very people they had just fought to hire.

So they pushed for a new “work to live” value, emphasizing job flexibility, employee health, and work-life balance. They rolled out a dozen reinforcing behaviors to support this new value — but eight months later, adoption was spotty at best. Many supervisors and midlevel managers hadn’t fully grasped the deeper cultural shift involved and thus treated the supporting behaviors in ways that undermined their intent. For instance, email on weekends was prohibited, but many managers just set their emails on a time delay, resulting in an onslaught of new demands first thing every Monday morning. Other behaviors were similarly misinterpreted or only partially adopted, and the problems with talent retention continued.

Realizing that this cultural change would take far more time and effort than they had assumed, senior leaders began deliberately modeling the behaviors in their interactions with others in their networks. Over time, as many midlevel managers experienced the resulting positive changes in their own work lives, the underlying value became anchored in their belief systems, and their adoption of the cultural behaviors became more natural.

Another organization, a business services firm, combined survey-based network data with respondents’ assessments of whether their peers exhibited important new cultural behaviors, in order to identify places where the company could speed up adoption of those changes. The analysis revealed that some of the more nuanced behaviors — including applying highly discerning judgment to every idea and taking risks that were big but worthwhile — took longer than others to learn. But a small set of employees required less “soak time,” because their networks gave them opportunities to watch senior leaders enact these behaviors and learn what they truly meant. So the organization set up “fly on the wall” situations, inviting more employees to attend meetings where they could see leaders, sometimes several levels up, engage in these very tacit behaviors. (The network analysis identified connections that would legitimize the presence of a junior employee in a meeting of senior leaders and provide assurance of that person’s trustworthiness and discretion.) These experiences accelerated adoption of the desired behaviors through experiences that employees normally would not have had access to for years, perhaps even decades.

In the same company, other nuanced behaviors were poorly adopted because newcomers tried to absorb them too quickly. These employees imitated what they thought was being modeled but missed the mark because they didn’t fully understand the underlying cultural values. One such value embraced intensive testing of new ideas for weakness through fierce and informed debate. Unfortunately, these newcomers got the impression that the culture was antagonistic toward innovative ideas, and they simply attacked anything they thought strayed too far from the company’s existing strategy.

The intended behaviors were much subtler. For instance: Don’t argue with data unless you have better data, and don’t object to a claim unless you can explain how your insights provide a different perspective. Understanding what those behaviors meant and looked like would take time. But company leaders didn’t just ask newcomers not to engage in them for a year or two; they used network data to pair the employees with peer-level mentors who demonstrated a mature grasp of the underlying value. These mentors counseled newcomers on when and how to hold back, creating space for them to learn the nuances over time and engage only when they really comprehended the behaviors.

A surprising side effect of this mentoring was improved retention for newcomers. Previously, those who had picked fights without understanding the cultural rules had also left the organization quickly. But now that they understood the need to hold back at first, they were able to build more productive network ties with others early in their tenures.

Combining network analysis with assessments of organizational culture provides leaders with a rich understanding of how new values take root. It gives them a more “local” view of culture — one where desired behaviors are communicated, modeled, observed, and adopted on the ground, not broadcast from on high. And that perspective allows leaders to drive change in more targeted ways. They learn how new ideas and beliefs spread, who the real influencers are in their organization, and how long the process can take — which makes it easier to propagate new values where they are needed and produce enduring outcomes.