Some rooms you just want to get out of as quickly as possible. Dirty, smelly, noisy; glaring fluorescent lights; nowhere comfortable to sit; sketchy occupants.

The organizational equivalent of that kind of room: a toxic culture. Dishonest, negatively political, unfair; glaring inconsistencies between word and deed; nowhere comfortable to dialogue; sketchy agreements.

It’s possible to improve a room—clean it up, change the lights, kick out the loiterers. Is it possible to improve a company’s culture?

Just read a really good, simple article about this topic here on Forbes by John Kotter. He opines (and I agree) that there are two core reasons that “culture change” efforts often fail miserably: people don’t understand what culture is, and they don’t understand why it’s important, how it’s formed, and how it changes.

John then provides a definition of culture that’s nearly identical to the one we use in our work with corporate culture issues—nice to be aligned with such a wise man! (John’s definition is “Culture consists of group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” Ours is “Culture is patterns of accepted behavior, and the beliefs and values that promote and reinforce them.”)

And then he goes on to talk about what works and doesn’t work in terms of changing culture. I completely agree with him in terms of what doesn’t work. Here’s how he sums it up:

What does NOT work in changing a culture? Some group decides what the new culture should be. It turns a list of values over to the communications or HR departments with the order that they tell people what the new culture is. They cascade the message down the hierarchy, and little to nothing changes.

Love it. So poignant, and so accurate. I also agree in principal with his summary of what does work—how culture can be changed—but I think he makes it sound a little too easy. It takes a concerted effort on the part of senior leadership to really change culture in a substantive way. First, you have to determine those ‘accepted behaviors’ that, if you changed them, would have the biggest positive impact on the culture. Let’s say, just to pick one behavior, that you decide you want the people in your organization to be more open to considering and acting on new ideas. Now comes the hard part: how do you change that behavior? What we’ve found is that:

People will change their behavior only if they see the new behavior as easy, rewarding, and normal.

Easy: This means the person being asked to behave differently believes, “I have the skills and knowledge to do this, and there are no organizational obstacles to me doing this—I won’t get in trouble, and nobody will get in my way.” Too often, we ask people to behave in new ways that seem hard to them—either we haven’t taught them the necessary skills, or they believe they’ll get pushback. So if you want people to be more open to new ideas, you may need to teach them some skills: of listening, of managing their negative self-talk, of asking more curiosity-based questions. Then you’ll need to remove organizational obstacles to their openness (do people get punished by management, either subtly or overtly, for suggesting or entertaining new ways of doing things? Figure out how to remove those impediments from the system.)

Rewarding: For a behavior to be rewarding the person has to feel that,Doing this behavior will give me results (emotionally or practically) that are valuable to me.” This is where behavior connects to values; you have to show people how behaving in these new ways will support what they value. For example, if someone deeply values having positive human interactions, and you help them to see how being more open to others’ ideas will improve the interaction—they’ll find that behavior rewarding.

Normal: This is a big one. In order to change the way they behave, most people need to feel that “People like me act this way, and people I admire and want to emulate act this way.” Human beings, for the most part, don’t want to be the odd man out. If you want employees to be more open to new ideas, for instance, you have to be able to give them some evidence that some peers they admire are consistently open to new ideas and approaches. And they have to see their leaders and managers—you included—demonstrate that kind of openness, as well.

I’m convinced, as Kotter is, that so many cultural change efforts fall apart because those who want to catalyze the change don’t approach it as organization-wide effort to identify the specific behaviors that need to change, and then figure out how to make the new ways of behaving easier, more rewarding and more normal than the old.