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Corporate Culture Change? No Thanks!

Top managers’ 5 most common objections to cultural change initiatives … and how to tackle them

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” declared management guru Peter Druckner.

Most managers know from their own experience that no matter how brilliant the strategy is, the ‘wrong kind of’ organisational culture can sabotage even the best of plans.

Let’s see two typical examples:

  1. A company in the financial sector wants to move into a new market. This would entail the organization changing quickly, being proactive and innovative and responding rapidly to new circumstances. However, the present culture of the organisation is highly bureaucratic, processes are slow and the mindset of employees can be best summed up as: “But this is how we’ve always done it.”
  2. A fast-growing IT company would like to attract new investors. Unfortunately, the organisational culture lacks transparency, and bitter conflicts within the organisation undermine the trust of any potential investor.

These are only two of many examples I have seen that underscores “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

When it comes to initiatives to develop an organisation’s culture, it seems that the most sceptical of audiences are often the organization’s top managers, the people who, above all, need to be on board if these programmes are going to have any chance of success. They would rather focus on marketing strategy, technology development, process re-engineering – in fact, anything but the company culture itself.

This can be hugely frustrating for those HR professionals who see that the present corporate culture is the biggest hinderance to fulfilling all those ambitious business plans. When they try to launch projects to address the ‘culture issue’, their efforts are regularly thwarted by top management’s own reluctance to change, if not their outright cynicism towards such initiatives.

So, what is behind management’s resistance to changing culture? Here are the most common concerns – and some advice for HR in how to tackle them:

  1. “What is culture anyway?” While most leaders are familiar and comfortable with concepts related to finance or technology, organisational culture is a term which is difficult to grasp. “A set of shared values and norms that characterise the organisation? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Advice to HR: Always speak about culture in the most pragmatic terms. Talking about ’behaviour’, ’habits’ and ’the way we do things around here’ is a much better approach than referring to ’collective values, beliefs and principles’. Bring concrete examples – and lots of them – to show what you mean when you say that the culture is frustrating the company’s success. Ask yourself what kind of behaviour and attitudes you are talking about. How are these negatively impacting the bottom line? Forget the theory – managers care about the real-life practical aspects of company culture.

  1. “It is too touchy-feely. Are you really talking to me about beliefs, values and emotions? I’m not a psychologist. I’m a manager. This is a workplace.”

Advice to HR: Communicate about culture in a down-to-earth way, using plenty of examples, and try to avoid the psychobabble. Having said that, the process of cultural change can only be successful if top management are open to considering psychological factors such as emotions and motivations. So, HR’s role is to demystify those fuzzy psychological terms and help members of the management team improve their emotional intelligence. This is an essential ingredient of any culture development project.

  1. “You can’t change grown-up people’s personalities.” So, is it possible to change the culture at all? Especially if this involves changing so many people at the same time?

Advice to HR: To counter this argument you must make it perfectly clear from the start that culture development doesn’t mean changing people’s personalities. But if you’re going to change employees’ mindsets, new approaches to completing tasks and new behaviours will be necessary. Perhaps surprisingly, people are normally willing to adopt a new approach, they are open to forming new habits – but only if the expectations are made clear. In many cases a lack of clarity is the biggest enemy of culture change. And it is up to top management to provide this clarity. They need to define and demonstrate what kinds of attitudes are expected from colleagues. One of the most amazing things about culture change is that people will change each other: new attitudes can spread in a company like a virus.

Let’s not be naïve here. In any big organisational change process there will be some who won’t make the transition. Some simply won’t want to; others might struggle with the new expectations. Before you embark on changing the corporate culture you must prepare yourself for the fact that some people will leave the company and new ones will join.

  1. “It going to take years to change the organisational culture. That’s way too long.” This is a very typical concern of managers. And it happens to be true. Changing the organisational culture is always a long-term project.

Advice to HR: Don’t ever try to undersell your culture change initiative. It is a long haul and management should be fully aware of that. Nonetheless, just because it can take years to change a culture doesn’t mean you can’t map out the significant milestones on the way – in fact it makes it even more important to do so. For example, when the key elements of the new culture such as core values have been defined and agreed upon by the leadership team, that is already a milestone that should be celebrated. With time, an increasing number of employees will adopt those new attitudes and behaviours. Maybe you will see more and more examples of excellent customer service (even though these are still yet to improve your customer satisfaction figures). It is essential to make good examples like these visible to all in order to demonstrate that the corporate culture is indeed changing. These milestones encourage the management team, as well as all your other colleagues, to keep pushing.

  1. “How can you measure the effect of culture change?” asked some data-oriented managers. They’ve got a point. The effects of changing the organisational culture is difficult to give a number to, as it is with any ‘soft’ factor in an organisation, like engagement, motivation, etc. It is impossible to show exactly how much of that rise in your company’s profitability is directly linked to changing the culture.

Advice to HR: It is understandable that top management would like to see tangible results if they are going to invest their time and money in a culture change project.

One way to approach this question is to build a Balanced Scorecard for the culture program outcomes, thus demonstrating through KPI’s how the changes in attitudes and behaviours would influence internal processes, customer satisfaction and ultimately the financial performance of the company.

At the same time you shouldn’t forget: tangible results don’t always have to mean statistics. When changing the organisational culture, one of the best ways of showing tangible results is to demonstrate its effectiveness with some compelling stories to illustrate how new behaviours have resulted in better customer service, a shortened sales cycle and increased profitability.

Getting by-in from top management for a culture development initiative can be hard. I know it. You will need to understand their many concerns by listening to them. Use lots of examples and stories to support your case. And be resilient – try to convince them of the need for change with different arguments again, again and again.

Does it sound like hard work? Definitely. But it is well worth it.  Being the engine behind an improved corporate culture is the biggest value you yourself can create for your organisation.