What If Culture Elements Need to Change?

In my experience, the assessment process usually reveals that most of the culture will aid the change process. However, there may well be elements of the culture that are a barrier and require their own change program. For example, when the Alpha Power employees were required to identify and fix environmental hazards, this was recognized as a culture change in that it required employees to develop a different self-image and a different under­standing of what their basic job was.

If the new required behavior involves changing the norms of a subgroup over which management may have only limited control, then a longer-range change process using a variety of tools may be necessary. For example, in Alpha Power, the ultimate goal of having employees monitor each other and report on each other if safety or environmental hazards are discovered runs into the deep assumption in the union subculture that “peers will not rat on each other.” The goal in the company is ultimately to be able to rely on all employees to take full responsibility in this area and not to cover up dangerous behavior by fellow employees. That has resulted in a long-range change program built around involvement of the union and changes in both the reward and discipline system. Such a program where elements of sub­cultures need to change can take years and a variety of intensive efforts.

Consequently just announcing “a culture change” is meaningless until the change leadership has specified what the new behavior is to be and has differ­entiated those cultural elements that are under their direct behavioral control from those that require changes in the behavior of members of subcultures.

How these processes work themselves out in organizations is highly variable, as the next chapter will show. Subcultures are discovered, macro­cultural assumptions affect what is defined as a crisis or business problem, culture assessments reveal that culture need not change at all if certain other business processes are fixed, and culture change goals are defined that may take years to accomplish successfully. Rather than make generaliza­tions about this variety of issues, in the next chapter I will provide several short cases and one long case where I was involved and, therefore, knew what was really happening. Published cases are hard to decipher because I cannot know how much the author and/or consultant is using definitions similar to mine in telling the story. For example, Gerstner in his analysis of IBM’s turnaround is widely credited with having achieved a major culture change in IBM, yet when you read his account carefully, it appears to be a case of getting IBM management to realize that they needed to get back to their roots, their effective sales/marketing culture (Gerstner, 2002). They had gone off course and become complacent, but their culture was viewed as a strength. So as you read the cases in the next chapter, be alert to the fact that organizational change is often no culture change at all or, at best, a change only in some elements of the culture.

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

One thought on “What If Culture Elements Need to Change?

  1. Coralie Cavins says:

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