What Can We Learn About Cultural Transformation from Barbie? 👀

The entire world is going through cultural transformation. Nothing is outside of the reach of these shifts — from centering environmental and social sustainability, large-scale cries for justice and systems-level disruption, to the major political clashes and swings happening within the United States, Colombia, and other countries. 

If the whole world is subject to this transformation, then so are our workplaces. Even if our work itself hasn’t changed much, how we do what we do is radically different than in the past. 

Our organizations are hybrid, multi-generational, digitally and globally connected, engaged, “un”professional, conscious, and vocal. (By “un”professional, I am referencing the hundreds of amazingly skilled and highly contributing individuals who have shared with me their utter lack of interest in all things reeking of old-school notions about professionalism and its associated baggage). The changes we are experiencing are a FORCE. They are taking us all by storm and requiring entirely new thinking, new skills, and new behaviors. This work is cultural. 

Organizational culture is the shared beliefs, values, behaviors, and customs that shape how people think and act within our organization and in the context of our working relationships. 

There are at least 4 main drivers of organizational culture change. They are:

  1. In response to shifts in the external environment
  2. When the methods developed and used so far no longer serve its members
  3. When new people and ideas enter into the culture and question the status quo
  4. As a gap exists, or gets larger, between who we say we are and what we value and members’ lived experiences.

Understanding why culture change is helpful, but even more important is to consider how organizational culture changes. Picture1

Unmanaged Organizational Change

  • Catalyzed by external events or grassroots organizing
  • Met by reactive efforts to fix specific issues
  • Measured by checking the box, testing for "less dissatisfaction," absent large-scale vision and broad ownership
  • Attention shifts when the next crisis arises

Unmanaged change leads to temporary “ownership” at the lowest levels of authority, thus a lot of effort by people or groups with little ability to allocate resources and make decisions that will have large-scale or long-term impacts. 

Managed Organizational Change

  • Initiated by senior leadership
  • Led by an intentional and structured process, clear internal communication, and broad stakeholder involvement
  • Focus is on amplifying change
  • Measured through multi-faceted feedback, applied in real-time and over time
  • Ownership and accountability are distributed

Managed change allows for responsibility and accountability by those with the resources and ability to create and facilitate a thoughtful process that reflects the organization’s values and drives equity at systems levels. This is what Barbie did. 

Barbie is a great example of intentional change that aligns with shifts in the environment. Barbie realized that she had an image problem. There is plenty of commentary that describes how she has been perceived over the years. There’s also been consistent effort and commitment to receive that feedback and make needed changes. Barbie was “born” in 1959. The world was a very different place. Yes, oppression and discrimination still existed, but the overall context has shifted dramatically over the decades, and Barbie has shifted with it. Barbie’s cultural positioning may have served her (Mattel) well at one point in time, but as culture (context) has shifted, so has the need for updates–authentic, transparent, and systems-level. I should also note there’s still work to be done. Just putting on a doctor’s white coat and changing skin color are not transformative. Surfacing and deconstructing the binary and oppressive constructs related to gender, gender roles, identity, and societal norms and creating a pathway for a new narrative with new actors, behaviors, and structures ARE.


Creating change through improvement. An extreme or radical change. 


Going to the root or source. 


Presumption that resources are finite and should be used with a view to long-term priorities and consequences of the ways in which resources are used.

What About You? 

How is transformation impacting your organization and you as a leader? Like many who have been in traditional leadership roles in well-established organizations, you might be experiencing some push back on:

  • The lack of diverse representation at the top of your organization. And if/when diversity is present, it is in roles that have the smallest budgets or teams yet broad expectation for impact.
  • Limiting and often suppressive roles for contribution and recognition.
  • Decision-making that is either opaque or overly controlled rather than pushed down to the lowest possible level in the organization.
  • Messages about valuing all voices but the absence of channels that facilitate communicating up. ⬆️
  • Misalignment of leadership behaviors with needs for transparency and inclusiveness
  • Outdated leadership style that views leaders in a paternalistic relationship “to protect” the organization and its employees, rather than more community, learning-based, and centering interdependence and distribution of power. 

If any of these resonate with you, what are you going to do about it? What personal changes are you making? How do you know what to focus on, and how are you measuring your progress? Related to your organization, how are you managing the cultural transformation that is happening? 

If you are making great progress, we want to hear from you! 

Please share in the comments section. 👇🏾   

We all benefit from examples of what it looks like when this important work of nurturing organizational culture is happening effectively. And, if you are like the majority of leaders I talk to regularly, then you need some support. We are here! We would love for you to enroll in the Inclusive Manager’s Toolkit, beginning September 12, where we explicitly talk about and equip you with tools for leading organizational culture and change. 

Organizations and their leaders are being held accountable for new standards of equity, inclusion, and excellence. To this end, the most impactful changes are not reactionary or episodic: they are intentional, ongoing, and enterprise-wide, strengthening strategy, systems, and culture within an organization.

                                                                                          - DeEtta Jones


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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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