Trying to change an entrenched corporate culture presents a daunting challenge. Corporate culture is notoriously slow to change. And it often fights back at every step of the way. Here’s why.
A primary function of culture is to maintain stability and predictability. It does so by establishing unwritten “rules of the game” which everyone is expected to abide by. These rules prescribe how people are to be treated, how relationships are to be maintained, and how things are to be done.
By it’s very nature, a change in corporate culture revamps these familiar rules. Some are abandoned, others restructured or realigned. The result is a sense of uncertainty about whether the new rules will genuinely take root, whether they will prove workable or productive, and what it will be like to work under them.
When this kind of uncertainty is pronounced or prolonged, it inevitably spawns anxiety. But people have a natural aversion to protracted states of high anxiety. That’s why they tend to cling to an existing culture which they understand. For them, the existing culture serves to limit anxiety by reinforcing stability and predictability.
Efforts to change this culture thus trigger defensive reactions. People do not readily abandon the familiar to embrace uncertainty. Therefore, when the threat of uncertainty raises its head, people instinctively tighten their grip on “the old ways.”
In most cases, this response is a product of the unconscious mind, not the result of conscious deliberation. The prime directive for the unconscious mind is to keep us safe. And that generally means helping us avoid circumstances which pose a threat — in this case, the threat of destabilization and the uncertainty which comes with it.
Implications for Leaders and Leadership
These realities then lead to inevitable implications for leaders who undertake wholesale corporate change. First, to the degree that a proposed change entails a retooling of corporate culture, leaders must expect resistance and plan for it. I work with far too many executives who are genuinely surprised when their well-intended change initiatives encounter outspoken opposition. They should have anticipated push-back.
Second, leaders must not try to “rush” cultural change. Once a culture matures, it embeds itself in the collective psyche. There it shapes personal habits and crystallizes patterns of behavior. And because neither habits nor ensconced behavioral patterns change quickly, cultural change must be viewed as an extended process.
Third, thorough communication is of the essence. The rationale for the change and its expected benefits must be communicated repeatedly. And leaders should convey this message in a variety of settings and along multiple avenues of communication. Leaders must clearly explain what will change, why it will change, what will not change, and how people will benefit personally if the change succeeds. In addition, questions about the change or objections to it must be answered promptly, openly, and transparently.
Fourth, because it is such a challenging task, change in corporate culture should be planned carefully and reflectively, never implemented on the fly. Before implementation begins, indeed, everyone in leadership must fully understand the scope of the change and the reasons for it. Timelines for rolling out elements of the change must be fully determined prior to any broad announcement of the change. Messaging to support the change must be painstakingly crafted so that it is clear, compelling, and motivational.
Each of these four leadership considerations could easily be the topic of multiple posts. I’m only sketching a broad picture for the moment to underscore the complexity of the process.
And given this complexity, it’s always a wise move to enlist external expertise like Strategic Leadership Development International to assist with cultural transitions. SLDI is uniquely equipped and positioned to provide consulting support to organizations needing to overhaul or modify their corporate culture. Learn more about the tools we use by visiting the pages on managing organizational change and cultural alignment and transformation on this site.