Beta Service Company – Rapid Organizational Culture Changes Through Behavior Modification

This case illustrates that behavior can be changed by leaders and, thereby, can launch an immediate culture change process. Two years ago, the head of organization development of Beta, a large urban utility, called to ask if I would do a culture assessment because the CEO and his Chief Operating Officer (COO) wanted to “change their culture.” When I inquired what she meant, it was reported that “the culture was very old, rigid, bureaucratic, and, therefore, very inefficient.” We agreed that I needed more informa­tion and that the best way to proceed would be to have the CEO, COO, and Head of Organization Development (OD) visit me to figure out the appropriate next steps.

We met at my house for a half-day session that began with asking them what they meant when they said their culture was “rigid.” Both the CEO and COO complained that there were too many meetings, that there were too many processes that were designed long ago and were no longer rel­evant, and that subordinates were too rigid in their behavior. In general, it took too long to get anything done. I asked for concrete examples to learn more about what was really bothering them and to identify the business problem that was really motivating them to do any kind of change program.

The COO jumped into the conversation with the following tale:

“I’ll give you an example. We have this regular staff meeting of fifteen senior managers that meets in a large room at headquarters. Everyone always sits in the same chairs. Just yesterday I attended the meeting and there were just five people there and they sat in the same seats all around this big room so that we had to shout at each other. It was ridiculous, what were they thinking, but that’s just what is bothering me, this rigid behavior.”

The CEO nodded and communicated that he concurred that this was a great example of the rigid culture. What happened next was quite reveal­ing. I said to the COO:

“Well, when you were sitting there, feeling uncomfortable, what did you do?”

“ I didn ’t do anything. ”

“Why not? Why did you tolerate this behavior if it made you uncomfortable?”

What was on my mind at this point was that the COO was the boss and chair of this committee and had the power to intervene directly. If he objected or made a suggestion to change things, the signal would go out to the rest of the organization that he wanted some changes.

Both the CEO and COO broke into a smile of insight. It suddenly dawned on them that by not acting they were perpetuating the very thing they were complaining about. They suddenly produced a whole stream of examples of rigidities that they could influence directly by mandating a new process and by demonstrating changes in their own behavior. The COO realized that he could have asked the five people to move to the front of the room, changed the meeting format, and announced new ways that he wanted things done.

Our meeting shifted immediately into a process-solving mode with all four of us thinking of ways that the CEO and COO could change their behavior, and how the head of OD could monitor their behavior, and pro­vide feedback and suggestions on other innovations. The half-day meeting ended with a series of specific changes that they would make. In a tele­phone call several weeks later, I learned that all kinds of “culture changes” were occurring as a result of the changed behavior of the CEO and COO. Two years have passed, and when I met the CEO recently he affirmed that great changes were taking place and that “the new culture was working much better.”

Lessons Learned

What leaders describe as cultures may not be embedded so deeply as to be impervious to being changed by new behaviors on the part of the leaders. It is therefore very important for the change consultant to identify the actual behaviors that the client wants to change. The assessment process can, as in this case, be quite informal and occur in the very first meeting with the client.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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