Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Change
Moving to a High Performance Culture
How does your organization approach change? Do people respond with a sharp intake of breath when they first hear about a proposed new initiative, and then go on to try and find reasons why it won't work? Or do they react by saying things like "What a great idea, and we could also.." In other words, is your corporate culture against or for change?
Corporate culture is a powerful force that runs through every organization. It is defined as the attitudes, experiences, beliefs, and values that operate within an organization. And these undercurrents define people's behavior, and how a company gets things done, in either positive or negative ways.
When successful change is the desired outcome, these cultural factors play a very important role. If an organization has had a negative experience of change in the past, then change will be that much more difficult the next time around. Likewise, if the prevailing attitude is represented by the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", then making any kind of change will be met with that much more resistance.
Effecting change is difficult at the best of times. When you encounter resistance due to cultural elements, it can be even more frustrating. This is because the very elements of corporate culture are so difficult to see and pinpoint.
It is worth remembering here that while culture issues can present barriers to change, they can also support change and goal achievement. To overcome cultural barriers the best way to start is to look at the characteristics of a high performance culture. Once you know what you "should" be doing or promoting, it is easier to make a plan to revamp your current situation.
There is no such thing as a perfect culture. An organization's culture is unique and special and it evolves from all the experiences, growth, and development that have already occurred. So while there is no ideal to aspire to, what you do want to do is set in place characteristics that will help your organization adapt to whatever comes its way. There's a saying that "the only constant is change" which has some truth to it, so every organization needs to encourage values, beliefs, and structures that support change.
The Characteristics of High-Performance Cultures
By definition, one of the main differences between high-performance cultures and low-performance ones is their ability to adapt and change. In general terms, a low-performance organization is one in which there are many barriers to change. When organizations are able to embrace change and easily implement systems to support it, they tend to be more successful.
The following chart lists cultural characteristics the support and obstruct change.
Is your organization more on the left or right hand side of the chart?
|Cultural Barriers to Change||Cultural Supports for Change|
|Fear and distrust – thinking that everyone is out for themselves||Trust in the company and the people that work there|
|Concern with short-term profits and the bottom line||Long-term business focus|
|Hierarchical structure with top-down decision making||Employee empowerment to make decisions|
|Looking for blame and fault, people shirk responsibility||Personal accountability and responsibility|
|Poor communication – the "messenger is shot", information is hidden, employees are uninformed and skeptical||Open and honest communication – information is sought after|
|Preference for the status quo, believes what is currently being done is the right thing to do||Openness to new ideas and ways of doing things|
|Failure is covered up||Failure triggers investigation and analysis|
|Crushing of new ideas, with criticism given with intent to find fault||Promotion of innovation and creativity|
|"Us versus Them" mentality, turf wars between departments or business units||Cross functional teams|
|Top management talks a big game but doesn't do much themselves||Top management that leads by example|
|Enforcement of very rigid policies and rules that don't allow for much judgment||Flexibility of rules, processes, and procedures that can be adapted to suit the situation|
|Negative attitude – start by looking at all the things that will go wrong||Positive attitude – start believing success will be achieved|
If your organization is parked on the left side of the chart, there's no time like the present to address these cultural issues. Not only will these issues hamper your attempts to change, they may cause inefficiencies, discord and disconnection between employees, departments, managers and customers.
Overcoming Cultural Barriers
The nature of the cultural barriers your organization faces will be unique to your organization. Nonetheless, there are some principles that you can apply right now that will help you as you move your culture from low-performance characteristics to high-performance ones.
What Gets Rewarded, Gets Done
Reward and recognition programs are highly effective means to motivate and reinforce change. When culture has to change, you need to get creative and identify specific behaviors or outcomes that represent the cultural elements you want to promote. If you have a culture that prefers the status quo, then you might consider setting up an improvement program where people are rewarded for the improvements they suggest.
At the same time, analyze your existing reward programs to ensure that you aren't inadvertently rewarding the behavior you want to eliminate. If you are currently recognizing people for adhering to policies and procedures, are you at the same time discouraging new ideas and turning out robots?
Remember that rewards don't need to be financial. Most people respond well to recognition for good performance, whether that be an e-mail or letter from their boss or someone higher up, or a mention in a departmental meeting or newsletter.
Practice What You Preach
When it comes to cultural change, the most important single element of success is leadership. As the head of an organization or a team, you cast a powerful shadow of influence over your peers and employees. This means you must model the behavior, attitudes, and values you want represented within the organization. When people see you making an effort that will make them want to follow suit.
Encourage Involvement and Ownership
When people have changes thrust upon them, it is only human nature that they will display a certain amount of resistance. If people feel no involvement or ownership, "not-invented here" syndrome sets in, and it can be difficult to subsequently win people around. Through consultation and involvement, people will experience greater control over the changing environment they are working in, and so they will be able to contribute positively rather than resist the change.
Say It Over, and Over, and Over Again
Changing an element of culture doesn't happen overnight. These patterns of doing things take a long time to develop. You need to communicate what you want done, and why, on a regular basis. Risk over-communicating if you need to because at some point, the message will resonate with each and every employee. If you let up, you risk allowing old patterns to re-emerge. Keep driving the message home until the new characteristic is firmly entrenched as a cultural characteristic.
Build a New Reputation
The aspects of your culture that you want to change away from need to be highlighted and then decisively quashed. Be open and forthright about what wasn't working and then create a new image for team, department, or organization. You might create a slogan or mantra that depicts what you intend to represent. If your tag line is, "We own our decisions" then eventually you will be known as the department that takes responsibility and commits to making right the results of less than optimum decision making.
Finally, anything that requires changing requires enthusiasm. Show your passion and commitment to the cause every day. When you unequivocally believe that a certain aspect of your culture needs to be changed, you will display that belief in everything you do. As you pass your passion on to others, you will create a chain reaction that culminates in a successful change initiative. This will also increase your "change agility" for next time.
An organization's culture is deeply embedded in its experiences, the way people work there, and their shared values and beliefs. It's not something that's quick or easy to change. However, if your organization's culture is creating barriers to the organization's progress, it's one of the key elements that you need to address when planning your strategic and change initiatives.
By analyzing your organization's culture, and addressing any key barriers to change, you can help your make your change initiative more successful. With perseverance, communication, and passion, you can build a new story and encourage new ways of working. And so you will build a higher-performance culture which is fundamental to your organization's ability to adapt and change, and to its long-term success.