Cognitive Restructuring for Culture Change

After an organization has been unfrozen, the change process proceeds along a number of different lines that reflect either new learning, through trial and error based on scanning the environment broadly, or imitation of role models, based on psychological identification with the role model. The Amoco change initiative to redefine the roles of the engineers falls into the scanning model in that engineers had to figure out for themselves how to make the transition to the consulting role. Alpha ’s program of environmental responsibility was primarily a case of teaching employees how to follow procedures based on extensive training, which is based more on identification with role models. In either case, the essence of the new learning is some “cognitive redefinition” of some of the core concepts in the assumption set. For example, when companies which assume that they are lifetime employers who never lay anyone off are faced with the eco­nomic necessity to reduce payroll costs, they cognitively redefine layoffs as “transitions” or “early retirements,” make the transition packages very gen­erous, provide long periods of time during which the employees can seek alternative employment, offer extensive counseling, provide outplacement services, and so on, all to preserve the assumption that “we treat our people fairly and well.” This process is more than rationalization. It is a genuine cognitive redefinition on the part of the senior management of the organi­zation and is viewed ultimately as “restructuring.”

Most change processes emphasize the need for behavior change. Such change is important in laying the groundwork for cognitive redefinition, but behavior change alone will not last unless it is accompanied by cognitive redefinition. For example, the Alpha environmental program began with the enforcement of rules but eventually became internalized as employees cognitively redefined their job/role and their identity. Some engineers at Amoco were able to redefine their self-image quickly and become comfort­able with the new job structure.

Behavior change can be coerced at the beginning of a change program, but it will not last after the coercive force is lifted unless cognitive redefini­tion has preceded or accompanied it. Some change theories (for example, Festinger, 1957) argue that if behavior change is coerced for a long enough period of time, cognitive structures will adapt to rationalize the behavior change that is occurring. The evidence for this is not clear, however, as recent developments in former Communist countries reveal. People liv­ing under communism did not automatically become Communists even though they were coerced for fifty years or more.

1. Learning New Concepts and New Meanings for Old Concepts

If someone has been trained to think in a certain way and has been a mem­ber of a group that has also thought that way, how can that person imagine changing to a new way of thinking? As pointed out earlier, if you were an engineer in Amoco, you would have been a member of a division working as an expert technical resource with a clear career line and a single boss. In the new structure of a centralized engineering group “selling its services for set fees,” you were now asked to think of yourself as a member of a consult­ing organization selling its services to customers who could purchase those services elsewhere if they did not like your deal. For you to make such a transformation would required you to develop several new concepts— “freelance consultant,” “selling services for a fee,” and “competing with outsiders who could underbid you.” In addition, you would have to learn a new meaning for the concept of what it meant to be an “engineer” and what it meant to be an “employee of Amoco.” You would have to learn a new reward system—that you would now be paid and promoted based on your ability to bring in work. You would have to learn to see yourself as much as a salesman as an engineer. You would have to define your career in differ­ent terms and learn to work for lots of different bosses.

Along with new concepts would come new standards of evaluation. Whereas in the former structure you were evaluated largely on the quality of your work, now you had to estimate more accurately just how many days a given job would take, what quality level could be achieved in that time, and what it would cost if you tried for the higher-quality standard you were used to. This might require a whole new set of skills of how to make esti­mates and create accurate budgets.

If standards do not shift, problems do not get solved. The computer designers at DEC who tried to develop products competitive with the IBM PC never changed their standards for evaluating what a customer expected.

They over-designed the products, building in far too many bells and whis­tles, which made them too expensive.

2. Imitation and Identification Versus Scanning and Trial-and-Error Learning

As I stated at the outset of this section, there are basically two mechanisms by which we learn new concepts, new meanings for old concepts, and new standards of evaluation—either we learn through imitating a role model and psychologically identifying with that person, or we keep inventing our own solutions until something works. The leader as change manager has a choice as to which mechanism to encourage. Imitation and identification work best when (1) it is clear what the new way of working is to be, and when (2) the concepts to be taught are themselves clear. For example, the leader can “walk the talk” in the sense of making himself or herself a role model of the new behavior that is expected. As part of a training program, the leader can provide role models through case materials, films, role-plays, or simulations. Learners who have acquired the new concepts can be brought in to encourage others to get to know how they did it. This mechanism is also the most efficient, but has the risk that what the learner learns does not integrate well into his or her personality or is not acceptable to the groups he or she belongs to. This means that the new learning may not be internalized, and the learner will revert to prior behavior after the coercive pressure to perform is no longer there.

If the change leader wants us to learn things that really fit into our per­sonality, then we must learn to scan our environment and develop our own solutions. For example, Amoco could have developed a training program for how to be a consultant, built around engineers who had made the shift successfully. However, senior management felt that such a shift was so per­sonal that they decided merely to create the structure and the incentives but to let individual engineers figure out for themselves how they wanted to manage the new kinds of relationships. In some cases, this meant people leaving the organization. But those engineers who learned from their own experience how to be consultants genuinely evolved to a new kind of career that they integrated into their total lives.

The general principle here is that the leader as change manager must be clear about the ultimate goals—the new way of working that is to be achieved—but that does not necessarily imply that everyone will get to that goal in the same way. Involvement of the learner does not imply that the learner has a choice about the ultimate goals, but it does imply that he or she has a choice of the means to get there.

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

One thought on “Cognitive Restructuring for Culture Change

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