Culture is having a cultural moment. Today’s headlines highlight workplace culture as both a business accelerator (Target) and a toxic impediment (McDonald’s). Every organization seems to be considering a culture initiative or is in the throes of one. Companies implore employees to Move faster! Innovate! Be agile! Break down siloes! Collaborate! Take more risks!

Despite the bold proclamations and exclamation points, few companies are achieving real culture change – a mere 9 percent, according to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report. Yet culture is a critical enabler and predictor of long-term business outcomes. MIT research shows that enterprises with a top-quartile employee experience are twice as innovative, score two times higher on customer satisfaction and are 25 percent more profitable than those with bottom-quartile cultures.

There are numerous reasons companies miss the mark and forfeit the strategic value of culture, but the most common problem we see is that culture initiatives are too grandiose, unwieldy and theoretical. They are heavy on lofty ideals and light on specific behavior changes necessary to achieve those ambitions.

The result? Employees ask, “But what am I supposed to do?”

We helped answer that question at a recent workshop we facilitated for the Executives’ Club of Chicago. Edelman helps clients change culture in part through targeted interventions that are rooted in behavioral science and explicitly linked to business strategy. Designing an intervention—a pilot with measurable tactics to shift a specific mindset or behavior—requires getting very clear about the problematic behavior. For example: “We’re not innovating because people are on the side of safety, remain silent in meetings and don’t share their ideas.”

We introduced behavioral science principles—such as choice architecture, default effect, social norms, and salience—that organizations can use as “nudges” to encourage new behaviors. Using Edelman’s proprietary behavior change map, participants created their own solutions to a variety of culture challenges, from apathy among long-serving employees to entitlement following a winning streak and lack of collaboration across organizational siloes.

A one-time workshop or conversation will not transform culture, however, here are four questions to start with as you approach culture change at your organization:

  1. What is the scope of the change required? Is the task to transform the entire organization, or to holistically define or recast its beliefs and behaviors, as is often the case in post-merger integrations? Or is the objective to target specific behaviors and mindsets that need to shift, perhaps in the wake of a crisis or in support of a new strategy? Where culture change falls along this continuum helps inform how broad or targeted your approach should be.
  2. What does the future state look like? Get crystal clear about which routines and habits need to change, and how they should be different in the future to drive strategy.
  3. What are the root causes behind the behaviors you need to change? To shift how people act, it helps to understand the underlying beliefs, barriers and motivations in play.
  4. What behavioral science-based “nudges” can you use to help employees and leaders break old habits and form new ones? These can include communications; policy/process changes or physical work environment modifications. For example, a company needing to reduce unnecessary time spent in meetings could encourage employees and leaders to reserve two midday meeting-free hours for work; automatically block those hours on calendars; or remove chairs from meeting rooms to encourage faster stand-up meetings.

Every organization has a culture, whether it is carefully cultivated in line with strategy or randomly shaped through personalities and arbitrary norms. No matter the case, successful, sustained culture change starts with asking the right questions and taking the right approach.

Tamara Rodman is executive vice president and leads Employee Experience in Chicago.

Felicia Joy is senior vice president, Business Transformation and head of Behavioral Science.