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How NOT to start a change process if you are new manager

hulk__the_angry_manThe New Manager’s Big Change Initiative is failing

Go-ahead manager Bob Newcomer begins his position in the well-established company, Slo-Gro products. He is full of ambition and eager to prove himself as the new head of the team.

After a few weeks, Bob can already clearly see that the processes, methods and traditions in the company are totally dysfunctional and in desperate need of change.

Therefore, after less than two months in office, Bob announces his Big Change Initiative. He introduces several radical transformations. He changes the organisational structure; he starts re-engineering processes; he demands new attitudes and new behaviours from his subordinates

Not surprisingly, Bob Newcomer faces huge resistance. Things are just not happening the way he planned. His orders are not being carried out. People don’t follow his new procedures.

He replaces several of his managers, but improvement is still not forthcoming.

He doesn’t understand what is wrong.

Why is it so hard for Bob to change Slo-Gro’s culture even though it is clearly dysfunctional, even though his initiatives are clearly more modern, more efficient, more in line with the market demands?


Why can’t new managers push though radical changes?

In fact, an experiment with kindergarten pupils might shed some light on this phenomenon.

In the 1950s the Hungarian psychologist Ferenc Mérei designed an experiment involving children between the ages of 4 and 6. He and his team wanted to explore situations in which a single new leader attempts to influence a group with established traditions and behaviours.

Before their experiment Mérei’s team observed kindergarten pupils and identified some ’dominant kids’ with leadership charisma – those kids who naturally act as leaders when in a group of their peers.

In the first phase of the experiment, they formed groups of 4-5 non-dominant children – ones who generally preferred to be followers. For several days these non-dominant children played together.

As these small groups spent more and more time together, they naturally developed their unique habits and traditions, identified in the games they played and special rules they all followed.

Once the small group of children formed their own ’culture’, a dominant child – a ’new leader’ – was placed in the group. These ’new leaders’ selected by Mérei’s team were also a year older than the other children.

The psychologists wanted to discover which was stronger: the leadership charisma of the ’new leader’ or the team culture with its established traditions?

The answer became very clear from the experiment.

Even though most of the little ’new leaders’ tried to dominate the others, tried to give instructions to the group, almost all of them failed to change the group’s culture. Nobody followed their orders; everybody continued playing according to the old rules of their games.

In 25 out of 26 trials, the ’new leaders’’ attempts to change the existing culture were thwarted. The team with its established culture proved to be the stronger dynamic than a single forceful leader. The new dominant child eventually gave in and started following the groups traditions himself.


How did those new kindergarten leaders manage to change the existing traditions in the end?

As Mérei and his team continued their observations they discovered something else.

Once their little ’new leaders’ learned the unwritten rules of the group and became an accepted part of the community, most of them started to change the culture from within.

Some of the dominant kids began this shift by giving others instructions that were in line with the existing traditions. The original members of the group were happy to follow, of course.

Once the ’new leader’ strengthened his leadership position by understanding the existing traditions and using his dominance within that framework, he gradually introduced new elements, new rules into the game.

In time several of the dominant children managed to change a number of elements of the existing culture, but only when they tried to do it from the inside. Only after fully understanding and accepting the existing traditions of the group could the new leaders’ change initiatives be successful.


Can you be as wise a leader as a dominant six-year-old?

Changing an organisation’s long standing traditions as a newcomer is extremely hard. As long as you fail to understand the rules of the game, as long as you are still an outsider, you will typically face insurmountable resistance to change.

So how can you go about changing the culture as a new manager?

  • Have a deep understanding of the existing culture. Explore behaviours that define the organisational culture and the attitudes and beliefs behind it. (You can do this by conducting an organisational culture diagnosis.) Don’t start changing the culture before you understand it.
  • Appreciate the positive elements. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because the existing culture has some dysfunctional elements, it can’t all be wrong. Consciously find the positive elements amid all the frustrating ones and emphasise these in your communication. After all, your colleagues have been living by these traditions for many years. The worst message you can send them is that what they have been doing all those years is all wrong.
  • Strengthen your position first. In the game of cultural change you can’t win on your own. Build your networks in the organisation; find your supporters. Assemble a strong management team you can rely on. If you try to change the culture with a truly supportive team behind you, you will be strong enough to overcome the natural resistance accompanying any change process.