Starting change from the bottom – or without support from the top

On a change management forum recently I come across this interesting post:

  • Does anyone have any comments or experience about how it is possible to change the culture within a department without support from the top?
  • In fact the very top may actually be part, in no way all of, the cultural problem.
  • Cultural issues have been identified such as fear of top, lack of innovation, mistrust, low motivation, negativity
  • Managers and sample of staff are happy to try to work on this Senior management who will sanction any action are seen to be part of the problem
  • The question is whether it is possible to effect any form of cultural change without support from the top?

This I am sure is not an uncommon situation faced by many HR, L&D and project teams. and to those members it is a perfectly reasonable problem to solve.

Having been involved with change at all levels in organisations and as an external adviser, I know that culture change like this can be initiated in this way (indeed it happens when you bring any new manager in) the challenge is to have the consistent culture across the organisation.

BUT – and it is a big one…who wants the change? Why?

Incremental change when individuals enter the organisation and adapt the micro culture in their part of the organisation is one thing, but without the commitment and desire of the owners or key stakeholders do we have a right to change the culture? Do we fully understand why the culture is what it is – the advantages this style may well have?

Often while a culture may APPEAR to be a distractor – it may well be the factor that is keeping the organisation afloat.

I feel that too many of us have read the books on empowerment and have started to believe the hype… some of the most successful organisations are autocratic (look at Jack Welch and GE) – who is to say that a style is effective or ineffective – sure it needs to be consistent and that people employed ‘buyin’ or accept the culture.

Case study
Once I worked as an adviser to a successful office supplies organisation – £22m t/o. the owner wanted to reduce his working week from 7 to 3 days, and to do that he needed to use the managers he had as ‘managers’ rather than as highly paid office staff. So even with the full engagement of the owner we started a change process. Over the months there were some manager casualties – they were not up to the job and left – but the remaining five were sound individuals. Having achieved the goal within 12 months things looked fine – but when a slight downturn occurred – the managers lacked the ability to adapt the culture to suit – and 3 years later the owner/ manager was back in the driving seat – having host t/o slashed by 45%. This was due (we discussed this at some length) to the culture, most of the people were originally hired into the ‘old’ culture and could not work as effectively under a more open environment.

Do we as change agents look at culture as something that needs to be ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ ? While we may understand the principles of culture do we stop and take the time to understand just how culture is integrated in everything the organisation does – and do we undertake a full analysis of what impacts what and why before making grand plans for change. I suspect on the whole not. Culture is a factor of the person or persons at the top. It is created by their actions and inaction’s. In my view unless the person(s) at the top want and demand the change – leave alone – or at least enter with extreme caution, and above all do not believe the hype in the latest book on organisational fads…

So can you make bottom up change – yes
should we make bottom up change – No!


Mike Morrison is director of RapidBI, an organisational effectiveness consultancy. He has been involved in HR, OD and strategic development for over 20 years. He can be contacted via

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  1. mike-247test says:

    Starting change from the bottom – or without support from the top

  2. Starting change from the bottom – or without support from the top

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