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ATD Blog

The X Factor of Effective Culture Change

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Not all change is equal, and not all change requires the same level of care. Culture change is one of those transformations that requires a carefully designed map. Unlike transactional change, where an old tool or process is here one day and gone the next, whether you were mentally prepared for it or not, transformational changes, like culture change, will be a complete failure without careful attention to the hearts and minds of those impacted.

Many things can affect the successful adoption of transformational change, but there is one component that we call the X Factor. With it, change efforts are nearly three times more likely to succeed than without it. What is this magical X Factor? Active and engaged sponsorship.

Change practitioners often praise engaged sponsorship, but what exactly does it mean to be active and engaged, and why is it so important for success?

The 3 Keys of Active and Engaged Sponsorship

1. Engage Early
Culture change can be a long, slow process. To be maximally effective, sponsors must engage early, potentially even before the employees know a change is coming. In the case of culture change, leaders are not simply signing off on and approving the change. They must immerse themselves in the change first. This means fully understanding the new culture’s behaviors, values, and language, but it is also more than that.

Effective sponsors should also fully understand the tenets of employee engagement and change management in general. This foundation will drive their understanding of the full process and ensure a common language for each of the following elements. As employees are going through the steps of learning about new behaviors and expectations, sponsors must already be engaging in those behaviors and leading by example, which leads us to the second component of active and engaged sponsorship.


2. Lead by Example
Asking employees to do things differently, especially when they have experienced success with their current behaviors, is a tough ask. Employees may have joined the company because of the culture or at minimum, have learned to adapt to the existing environment. Even positive changes can be seen as threats as our habitual brain sounds an alert for anything that threatens to create any kind of discomfort. Few people will be chomping at the bit to learn a new way of interacting.

Sponsors set the example for their teams and the organization at large by demonstrating those behaviors, reinforcing the messaging, and correcting behaviors, potentially from top leaders, that are misaligned with the new direction. As employees start seeing these behaviors reinforced, they will be more likely to recognize the culture as something that is here to stay and be more willing to make that leap to try the new behaviors.

3. Reinforce the New Culture
Learning the new behaviors is only the first step to making a culture shift. As learners move out of the learning environment and into the rocky waters of their day job, their behaviors can easily slip back into those old habits. Sponsors must establish an environment where those new behaviors can flourish; they must make it easy to engage in the new behaviors and hard to engage in the old ones. The best way to do this is to ensure that all the reinforcement systems are aligned to the new culture, supporting new behaviors and ways of working. This includes performance and reward systems, policies and procedures, and in some cases, the organizational structure.


Only top sponsors can drive this type of organizational shift, but without it, employees will have a hard time pulling themselves out of the old behavior patterns and ruts. Even if they wanted to, the existing systems may be pushing them back in. Sponsors must carefully consider which systems need to be adjusted and work with the appropriate teams to ensure they are changed as part of this cultural transformation.

Sponsors may consider measuring key elements of employee engagement to better understand the needs of their employees during and after these transitional periods and ensure they can maintain a focused effort on both strong organizational performance as well as employee satisfaction with their jobs and the culture overall.

Make Your Culture Change Stick

Although active and engaged sponsorship truly is the X Factor for effective culture change, these three factors pinpoint key activities that make the difference between an effective sponsor and an ineffective one. Culture change takes significant time. Learning and development plays a major role in successful adoption, and sponsors, as well as leaders throughout the organization, are a deciding factor in whether that learning sticks.

About the Author

Dr. Cheryl Jackson is the organization design and change practice lead at GP Strategies. She has been supporting transformational efforts in Fortune 500 organizations across a variety of industries including retail, manufacturing, healthcare, and food and beverage. With a doctorate in Industrial-organizational psychology, Dr. Jackson combines her experience with scientific methodology and research techniques to create practical solutions that drive meaningful change in the workplace.

About the Author

Annie McManus leads GP Strategies’ employee engagement practice. She provides consulting on measurement strategy and data analysis, and she partners with her clients to equip their employees to have more great days at work. She has partnered with hundreds of clients across all industries (especially government, insurance, banking, retail, energy, and manufacturing) on their internal employee engagement strategy, advising clients on all aspects of their measurement strategy.

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