The Art of Culture Change: Aligning People and Purpose

What I learnt are the keys to a purpose-driven culture that revolutionises workplaces

Laurie Parma
4 min readFeb 13, 2024

In today’s workplace, it’s not uncommon to find a misalignment between the mission and values of an organisation and the culture that exists within it. Urgency, burnout, and conflict often overshadow the purpose that initially brought everyone together. So, what are we doing wrong?

How can we create a culture that is not only purposeful but also sustainable?

The first step in creating a sustainable, purpose-driven, culture is to acknowledge that burnout, often the “chief turnover factor”, doesn’t only come from overwork but also from fruitless work.

When there is a dissonance between what we think, what we feel, what we do, and who we think we are, we experience pain and an overwhelming need to eliminate that pain. To be well while pursuing an inspiring mission, we must learn to acknowledge and address this discomfort when it arises.

On the other hand, letting tension and dissonance accumulate is a potential recipe for disaster. The resulting discouragement and disengagement often push individuals to either antagonise what the company is trying to achieve or overdeliver in an attempt to compensate for their low morale.

Mitigating this requires a fundamental shift toward a culture that is freeing, accepting, and authentic. This culture should inform everything we do, and how we interact with each other inside the business and with the world outside.

To achieve a sustainable, purpose-driven culture, here is my 3-step approach

Step 1: Identify what needs to change

Change is hard, and statistics show that many change programs fail to achieve their goals. According to McKinsey « 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals ». However, we must face the reality that what we’re proposing is a fundamental rewiring of the way people operate, and it won’t be easy to achieve. Change brings uncertainty, and threatens our status, autonomy, sense of relatedness and fairness. Our brains naturally resist change because of the consequences it may bring to those fundamental needs which we are hardwired to defend. But if we want to align people and purpose, we must address these challenges and create conditions that leave no one with any doubts that their needs will be met in version 2.0 of the business. Rinse and repeat, throughout the process.

Be brave, ask for feedback, survey your people with compassion, and ask the tough questions, figure out what the blockers are. Understand what level of resistance you are facing, and befriend it. Once the reasons why people resist become clear, they become possible to address, and you stop fighting in the dark.

Step 2: Remove obstacles to change

The failure of change programmes often lies not in poor strategy or lack of investment but in a failure to change human habits. Culture is essentially a package of habits that a group has adopted. Changing those habits takes time and attention. We need to systematically provide psychological safety, addressing all the consequences of change that may pose a threat to our [said] status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. This happens via communications, change champions-led programmes and various initiatives that should be specifically tailored to the working environment you are working with.

Step 3: Implement change

The implementation of change requires clear priorities that are easily recallable and make complete sense with everything else going on. These priorities should create certainty and remove the discomfort that comes with change. Building true habits that support these priorities is the hardest work, but it is crucial for long-term success. Finally, we need systems in place to support and sustain the priorities and habits that align people and purpose.

Detachment plays a vital role in this process. By giving our whole hearts to the mission while letting go of the outcome, we can achieve a purpose-driven culture that does not lead to burnout. This means facing reality, being unthreatened, and even finding a little happiness along the way, regardless of the final outcome.

Take home

Aligning people and purpose requires creating an open, malleable culture that is purposeful yet free, engaged yet not drained. It involves embracing discomfort, addressing the challenges of change, and creating psychological safety. By implementing this 3-step approach and practising detachment, we can pave the way for a sustainable and fulfilling work environment.

Remember, culture design, like any good design (see the image below), has implications. It is not without reason they say “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Let’s be careful not to fall into the trap of creating a culture that leads to a very strategic brick wall. Let’s align people and purpose in a way that brings out the best in everyone as they pursue their (and the organisation’s) purpose.

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Laurie Parma

Neuropsychology researcher, turned organisational culture and change strategist. Moonlighting sustainable finance researcher.