How Do You Change Culture from the Bottom Up?

February 13, 2024
February 13, 2024 Jamie Notter


Culture has always been done BOTH from the top down and the bottom up at the same time. When you’re doing both, the change is the most successful. And even if the top-down culture design piece isn’t happening, you can lead bottom-up change from wherever you are. Don’t underestimate your power to change culture. Be disciplined, iterative, and have metrics to show your success, and you can lead the change.


Everyone tells me that culture is driven from the top down, but that is only partly true. It is true that you must manage culture change from the top down. That’s a key part of culture change. If leaders are sending inconsistent messages, or behaving in ways that are opposite to the culture they say they want, then the change is going to be slow or could fail.

But you also need to be doing bottom-up culture change at the same time. The top can’t single-handedly drive culture, because it exists in every corner of the organization, and in the individual behaviors of all the employees. It’s just too much to control. That means that if you are not in charge, you have a key role to play in culture change.

If your organization is engaged in culture design, then the top will be rolling out plays in a culture playbook, and your first role is to dive into those plays. If they are calling for more experimentation, or changing processes in order to help cross-functional collaboration happen more effectively, then don’t resist those new processes. Give them a try and see if they work. In fact, you play a key role in giving feedback to those leading the culture change when the new processes DON’T work. All culture plays are experiments, so they might not work. The sooner that’s identified, the sooner a new play can be developed. The change effort needs people who are not in charge to play that critical role.

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But what if your organization is NOT doing culture design? What if you’re not in charge, and the culture is fairly mediocre, and the top’s not really doing much about it? Simple: you change it yourself. I don’t mean you can lead a top-down culture design process. Instead, embrace the concepts of culture design and apply them to your team and with your immediate colleagues.

Identify the areas of friction—the places where people are frustrated or results are being hindered. Then prioritize which ones would have the biggest possibility for performance gains. Then write up your own plays—things you will change, eliminate, or introduce in the way you do things that will address the friction and improve results.

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I even suggest you build out a culture change roadmap like I do with my culture design clients, where you do quarterly planning on what plays to implement, and you track key metrics to demonstrate the impact of your work.

You may be thinking, “Yeah but even if I do some culture change in my little corner of the world, the leaders could come in and squash it at any time, so what’s the point?” Well, there are two points: (a) at least for a short period of time you improved your performance and reduced frustration, and (b) if you’re good at having metrics that show the improvement, the leaders are much less likely to squash it once they see those results. Don’t underestimate your power to change culture. You don’t have to change ALL of it (that needs the top-down part), but successfully changing part of it is critical to sustaining momentum and providing direction for culture change. You want to be that positive deviant that is doing it in a different way and getting better results. Culture change needs to be in the hands of everyone.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.