Contriving Culture: How Responsible Leaders Can and Should Shape Organizational Culture

Laura Zumdahl, Ph.D., is the Vice President of Nonprofit Services at Donors Forum and a nonprofit leadership advocate.

I was sitting in a room full of leaders of nonprofit organizations last week, patiently listening to a colleague give a presentation on how to build a dynamic organizational culture when it happened.

The question was asked by a seemingly incident, but clearly skeptical, audience member.  “Isn’t this whole organizational culture thing…well…a bit contrived?”

I held my breath for a minute as the presenter paused before responding. I was poised to give the following presentation building on the organizational culture content and if he didn’t convince the audience it was important, I was sunk.  I started to glance around for the closest exit.

The presenter took a deep breath and responded. “Yes, actually it is absolutely contrived.”


The idea that a positive organizational culture happens without intent is a myth. Good things take work. And they take intention.

Over time I’ve realized the same cycle always plays out in organizations that seek to change their culture. There are three stages of cultural development, and all of them take time, intention, and a bit of manufacturing to get them off the ground.

Initially, a mind shift has to occur. New ways of thinking about how to do business, treat your customers, interact with colleagues, or focus on a new vision have to be introduced. This is your job as a leader. As the guardian and primary driver of organizational values, it’s up to you to set the tone. If you don’t introduce a new way, people will continue to do what they know. So if you want to change your culture, you first have to relentlessly talk about it and keep it on people’s minds.

Next, a shift in skills must transpire. Once a new way of being has been introduced, people have to develop the skills they need to operate in that mindset. Give them training, opportunities to practice, and constant pressure to not revert to the old way of doing things. Our brains tell us to operate out of what we know; using the patterns of behavior we’ve already developed. Until we practice the new way of being it can’t become second nature.

Over time the new patterns cement and true culture shift takes place. When you no longer have to think about it, you know you’ve reached that point. This is hard on an individual level (remember that diet you tried to start twice last year but gave up after a few days?), but even more difficult in an organization comprised of countless individuals. And this is why intention matters.

Your job as a leader is to guide this shift and make the path clear for the change in mindset and skills to take place. It takes time and it takes intentional effort to make a cultural shift, and that can often make it feel a bit contrived or artificial initially. It’s okay. It’s supposed to be contrived because unless you manufacture a deliberate shift it won’t happen. And over time the contrived way of being, becomes a cultural transformation.

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