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January 23, 2019

How culture change impacts staff

The other day I found myself in a strange place. I was upstairs in one of Kenya’s biggest supermarkets, looking at my fellow shoppers on CCTV. The reason was  - as I was shortly to discover – that I had been robbed. I had popped in with a little brown envelope of petty cash in order to buy some office stationery, and it had disappeared.

When I reported my loss, Nakumatt staff members were both concerned and helpful. Within minutes I was watching a video history of the previous 20 minutes in the life of the store. It was rather an out of body experience, and actually quite exciting as I waited to solve the mystery of the missing envelope.

There is the stationery aisle and moments later here I come. Not looking too shabby, even from this elevated angle (or perhaps because of it). Up and down I go, then I locate the orange folders I have been looking for. I pull the brown envelope out of my back pocket to check the shopping list my assistant has given me, and then I gather up an armful of the folders. And drop the envelope.

There it lies in plain view in the middle of the aisle, while I potter off to where the notebooks are. At this point I decide I need a trolley and disappear from view. While I am gone twelve different customers transit the aisle. Nine of them don’t even see the envelope lying there. One man steps around it. Another bends momentarily to look at it, but moves on. A lady pushes her trolley around it. So much for the old jokes about Kenyans being fixated on little brown envelopes.

I’m gone for a while (I remember now - I met a former colleague and we exchanged greetings) but soon I trundle back into view. The last of the big spenders, I gather up pens and more notebooks before returning to the orange folder shelf to lob a dozen of them into the trolley. At this point my left foot is all but touching the brown envelope. And then it happens.

A lady of executive mien walks down the aisle behind me. She sees the envelope, stoops and picks it up. She has clearly clocked the cash. She half turns and looks at me for a split second, but I am lost in an ecstasy of stationery. Then she makes her decision: to turn quickly and walk away with my money.

The nice man with the CCTV looks at me, and shrugs. Put that one down to experience.

I’ll do better than that, because I now realise that this episode gave me an excellent analogy on the way people react to company culture change. No matter how clear your vision or how engaging your Culture Transformation Programme, it is a human truth that employees rarely react in the way you hope.

Put aside the rejecters: they rarely remain a problem for long. In the context of a well-run CTP they soon isolate themselves and either depart or become targets for replacement.

The more interesting parish is of people who are predisposed to culture change. Experience has shown that there are six shades of positive reaction demonstrated by these members of staff:


  • Attention
  • Awareness
  • Acceptance
  • Advocacy
  • Action
  • Adherence


The test of a good CTP is its ability to move these people along the line from attention to adherence. To do this, it must engage staff members in four ways:


  • Hearing - receiving the right messages through relevant channels in the right tone of voice (preferably in the brand voice)
  • Head - being encouraged to consider the benefits of culture change for the business and for themselves.
  • Heart -being stimulated to feel positive and excited about the new future.
  • Hands - being tasked to change behaviour in their daily work to deliver the change.


Early attempts to change business culture in Africa have been limited to hearing and head. A smattering of vision and values posters. Some finger-wagging meetings with HR, followed by the obligatory admiring of the new logo and signage.

So it’s no surprise that, as in my supermarket story, many employees never even see culture change as an opportunity. Some walk right over it, others take a peek and, uncomprehending, move on. Yet more turn sharply to the side to avoid getting involved.

But with a brand-led culture change programme - one that engages heart and asks the hands to try something new - we now have a better chance. A chance that the lady who picks up the programme and runs with it can encourage others to join her and so builds the momentum needed for enterprise success.

Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising, most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.




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