Principles in Regard to Culture Change

When an organization encounters disconfirming information and launches a change program, it is not clear at the outset whether culture change will be involved and how the culture will aid or hinder the change program. To clarify these issues, a culture assessment process of the kind described in the next chapter becomes appropriate. However, it is generally better to be very clear about the change goals before launching the culture assessment.

  • Principle 3: The change goal must be defined concretely in terms of the specific problem you are trying to fix, not as “culture change.”

For example, in the Alpha Power Company case, the court said that the company had to become more environmentally responsible and more open in its reporting. The change goal was to get employees (1) to become more aware of environmental hazards, (2) to report them immediately to the appropriate agencies, (3) to learn how to clean up the hazardous conditions, and (4) to learn how to prevent spills and other hazards from occurring in the first place. Whether or not the “culture” needed to be changed was not known when the change program was launched. Only as specific goals were identified could the change leaders determine whether or not cultural elements would aid or hinder the change. In fact, it turned out that large portions of the culture could be used positively to change some specific elements in the culture that did have to be changed. The fact that the entire workforce could be trained immediately in how to identify hazards and what to do about them was a reflection of the highly structured, technical, autocratic Alpha culture. The bulk of the existing culture was used to change some peripheral cultural elements.

One of the biggest mistakes that leaders make when they undertake change initiatives is to be vague about their change goals and to assume that “culture change” would be needed. When someone asks me to help him or her with a “culture change program,” my most important initial question is “What do you mean? Can you explain your goals without using the word ‘culture’?”

  • Principle 4: Old cultural elements can be destroyed by eliminating the people who “carry” those elements, but new cultural elements can only be learned if the new behavior leads to success and satisfaction.

Once a culture exists, once an organization has had some period of success and stability, the culture cannot be changed directly unless the group itself is dismantled. A leader can impose new ways of doing things, can articulate new goals and means, and can change reward and control systems, but none of those changes will produce culture change unless the new way of doing things actually works better and provides the members a new set of shared experiences that eventually lead to culture change.

  • Principle 5: Culture change is always transformative change that requires a period of unlearning that is psychologically painful.

Many kinds of changes that leaders impose on their organizations require only new learning and therefore will not be resisted. These are usu­ally new behaviors that make it easier to do what we want to do anyway, such as learning a new software program to make our work on the computer more efficient. However, once we are adults and once our organizations have developed routines and processes that we have become used to, we may find that new proposed ways of doing things look like they will be hard to learn or will make us feel inadequate in various ways. We may feel comfortable with our present software and may feel that to learn a new system is not worth the effort. The change leader therefore needs a model of change that includes “unlearning” as a legitimate stage and that can deal with transformations, not just enhancements.

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

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