Who’s Afraid of Culture Change?

Who’s Afraid of Culture Change?


Not too long ago, I was meeting with the head of the biggest unit of a major manufacturing company. The topic was culture change. This leader spent the first ten minutes of the conversation outlining in fairly specific detail the elements of the company’s culture that needed to be shifted. They tend to focus on building consensus, for instance, which slows decision-making. After making a strong case for the need for change, he paused and said, “But maybe I’m wrong here, maybe everything is actually ok.” He then turned to one of his key lieutenants and asked, “What do you think? Am I making too big a deal of this? How would the organization react if I sent this message?”

This conversation by itself would be an interesting topic to explore. But what makes it even more intriguing is the fact that I had been working with some front line people in the company during the weeks leading up to this meeting, and these people often lamented that leadership didn’t appreciate the need for changing the culture!

How does this kind of misalignment come about? And what can organizations do to mitigate it?

Let me offer a few ideas and invite you to comment and add your own.

As is the case for most companies, this organization has a few layers of management between the unit head and the front line people. As messages go through these levels they get filtered and modified – almost like the childhood game of telephone. As a result, this leader does not have a good grasp of what the unit is really feeling, and the front line people have not gotten the full force of the leader’s strategic vision. For example, the main message the leader receives from his direct reports is that the field staff is overwhelmed with corporate initiatives, so any new program – such as “culture change” – will only add to their workload and lower morale. But in listening to the leader’s rationale and vision for changing the way people work, it is clear he is looking to ease the burden on front line staff, not add to it.  No doubt there are many other dynamics at play, but this distorted view from the top is a key issue with which the leader is struggling.

Now what can be done?  I can think of at least three ideas:

  1. Craft a clear, succinct, and compelling message around the rationale and goals of shifting the culture. These should be focused on results, not activities.
  2. Manage the communication of these messages carefully. Consider stakeholders, vehicles, and timing, and pay special attention to “key opinion leaders” who might rally the troops – or sabotage the effort. And aim for a combination of one-way and two-way communications to support direct interaction between leadership and the rank and file.
  3. Carry out several small-scale experiments that focus on achieving the goals (i.e., results) of the culture change by generating new behaviors among front line people. In other words, instead of implementing a culture change program, execute some projects that drive dramatic improvement and allow people to try out new ways of working that are aligned with the picture of the new culture.

What are your experiences with organizations attempting culture shifts?

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