Leading cultural change: Why every organization must see it as a big deal

by | September 22, 2017 12:35 am


Over the years, having worked with CEOs of diverse industries in helping them drive growth, I have come to realize that some organizations are more eager in focusing their attention on strategy, and less aware of the need to have the right culture – that will, of course, drive their organizational strategy and management practices. Most strategic initiatives that failed to deliver intended results in organization happened because those leaders probably did not see culture as a big deal – they overlooked the place of culture – they felt that when they hire the best of consultants and having the powerful growth strategies every other thing will fall into place.


But the truth is whenever there is a dysfunctional culture, strategy and innovation may not thrive, and whenever strategy and culture fight, culture wins. And so, smart organizations on daily basis see cultural change as a big issue- something that can’t be swept under the carpet – something that can determine their success or failure.


Changing the culture of an organization is a very difficult thing and usually results in over 75% failure rate. By culture we mean what some people call core values. Core values are guides to behaviour that collectively create a culture of the organization.


While we often talk of culture as a singular one in an organization, the truth is that there are many different cultures in every organization. In addition we see subcultures based on race and sex, as well as ethnic, language and education. So, in thinking about changing the culture of your organization it is not enough to define a set of core values and tell everyone to follow them. It is not enough to just train employees in the cultural values. They require regular ongoing and specific follow-up in support of following these values as well as any training, etc.


Organizations have people, they have processes and they have structures, all in support of the content or tasks of the organization. Therefore changing one’s culture requires a focus on all levels of the organization, all people, all management and all organizational processes as well as the infrastructure of the organization. This is because some CEOs and Leaders think that unacceptable cultural behaviours emanate only from the very lower level of employees. This is a false assumption. Everybody has a role to play.


One of the myths in culture change is that we just have to tell everybody and train them about the desired changes and they will automatically implement it. This is being very naïve as a leader at best and criminally negligent at worst. Each of us has across our chest, the letters WIIFM, or what’s in it for me? Thus, each of us evaluates any change partially or totally based on what is in it for me. As a leader, each of us must pay attention to these legitimate needs of each person impacted by the cultural change. It is only when we individually see the benefit of the change that we truly embrace the cultural change desired. Yes it is true, that we can force the change on all the employees just like the dictators. However, this usually results in passive aggressive behaviour or secret behavior that undermines what the leader is trying to do. A leader should not just be a control freak or an enforcer but a leader who works with the hearts and minds of their employees to embrace the desired cultural changes. Hence there is a need for the leader to understand and work on the issue of WIIFM for all employees.


Another myth about culture change is that we can change the culture without violating the old culture or making people unhappy or uncomfortable. Culture change is all about violating the old culture and making people uncomfortable and unhappy with the current state of the organization’s overall behavior.


A third myth about culture change is called “the quick fix that fails”. And this myth of culture change is quite simple; we just have to send out an e-mail, send an individual to training to get fixed, hold a meeting, or just train everyone to be better at something like accountability. In each of these cases we again see naïve or negligent leaders who have absolutely no understanding of the difficulty of cultural change.


Final note:

The issue of culture should be taken seriously in your organization. This is because, culture is the strongest infrastructure in any organization and is the most difficult to change. Therefore to change an organizations culture, you must attack it directly. It is the most resistant to change and it will only change when the new culture is clearly articulated in terms of behaviours and the new behaviours are reinforced and recognized. Also, the old behaviours need negative consequences attached to them. Therefore if you want to change the behavior, the most important thing is to ensure that there are rewards, recognition, and consequences for these old and new desired behaviors.


Feel free to share your views, comments or ask your questions. To your success!

 Uju Onwuzulike