How Long Does It Take to Change a Culture?

Posted on January 24, 2014 by Don MacPherson.

Brett returned from a trip to Poland with incredible stories. He talked about the stacks and stacks of Polish cash he had after exchanging just a couple hundred dollars. Inflation had destroyed the Polish economy. Perhaps the most remarkable story was that of a woman and her prized possession – a plastic shopping bag. According to Brett, she babied it like it was the only one of its kind.

Brett’s trip was in the early 1990s. Poland is proof positive that a single generation can make an incredible difference in a country’s history. Their cities are prospering and their youth see true opportunity. Go into a mall in Krakow and you’ll see designer brands that you might see in Berlin, Miami, Hong Kong, and Dubai.

Twenty years can be transformative with the right direction. Ask the average American what the first word to come to mind is when they hear “Bosnia” and most will reply “war.” For Columbia, it’s “drugs.” Those may be the words that most of us associate with those countries, but they are both prospering as they leave their ugly histories behind them.

If it takes 20 years to transform the culture of a struggling country, how long does it take to transform the culture of an organization? To transform it in the wrong direction, it takes about 15 minutes. However, to transform it positively the timeframe is about three years for medium and large organizations. For smaller organizations, it can take less time…about a year to three years.

When heads of HR and CEOs hear this, many become crestfallen. They want the culture they want now, not in three years. Then there are the leaders who get it. They take a breath. They accept the first year will be met with employee skepticism. They acknowledge the second year many employees will gravitate toward the new culture. The third year will see the rest of the employees either fall in line or leave the organization. This is the ideal situation with a focused and aligned executive team.

Modern Survey works with many organizations to help them create cultures of engagement. The three-year timeframe comes into play again. Normally the first year is spent getting senior leaders to model engaging behaviors to their direct reports and throughout the organization. The second year is spent teaching the remaining leaders about engagement, its importance, and how to leverage the drivers of engagement. The third year is spent getting the remaining employees – the individual contributors – to understand what engagement is, how to engage their co-workers, and their responsibility in owning their own engagement.

If it sounds simple, it is. If it sounds easy, it isn’t…but give us three years and we will show you the way.

To learn how Modern Survey can help your organization transform its culture or create a culture of engagement, email, call 612-399-3837, or visit

4 responses to “How Long Does It Take to Change a Culture?”

  1. Tamara Dyson says:

    Love your articles and way of thought, Don. Thanks.

  2. John Farmer says:

    Actually firing everyone who is not onboard with the change is not far from what you will end up doing. Changing corporate culture is a painstaking, one person at a time process. Leadership must identify the burning platform and communicate regularly and consistently as to why you have to get onboard with the change to address the burning issue. In the end, 6-12 months, there will still be resistors. Don’t focus your energies on the inertia group but on those who are on the fence plus those who have embraced change but still need reinforcement. Ultimately the inertia group will leave or you will have to help them leave.

  3. […] be a long process. Some experts estimate that changing culture in a large organization could take three to five years, so before embarking on a culture change initiative, make sure that everyone, from senior […]

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