Culture “Change”: a new frontier or more disruption and waste?

The idea of ‘culture change’ has been around at least since the 1970s.

Company culture was flagged as the new route  to progress and competitiveness. A good company culture was seen as the antidote to inefficiency, obsolescence and lethargy. The old ways were habits to throw away, to be ashamed of, to turn our back on. People who don’t adapt are seen as dinosaurs or stuck in the dark ages.

This trend in thinking gave rise to a plethora of ‘culture change’ programmes, usually involving energetic efforts to describe company values, visions, extended programmes of training, sometimes introspection (on the part of managers), browbeating and exhortation (of employees), ‘communication cascades’, ‘town-hall meeting’ and suchlike. To support this, various four-box models, multi-ring schematics, life-cycles and illustrations sprung into life to describe this intangible ‘thing’ of culture. But is ‘culture’ a cause or an effect of what happens in organisations?

Peter Drucker stated: “company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try instead to work with what you’ve got.” This is pragmatic thinking – and in many senses he is right – but not wholly so. A different perspective is needed, since sometimes the pervading culture can be damaging, counterproductive or simply unfair or unethical.

The culture in a company, or department, or team, or any type of organisation CAN actually be changed, but it is not achieved by trying to change the culture itself.  Seddon suggests that we should never make efforts to change a culture by ‘doing it to them’ (Seddon 2005). People will resent it  – and also people tend to detect any manipulation or ‘brainwashing’ a mile off. This increases resistance, undermines trust, garners cynicism and is generally unhelpful – the opposite of what you intend.

Don’t try to change people by attempting to change people, instead influence them to change themselves. The same is true of organisations. We can avoid a great waste of time, energy and resources if we skip this approach and instead work on things which really matter to people – and matter to our organisation. Just like forcefield analysis, it is better to identify and remove the forces that are driving the negative culture, rather than push at the positives.

The most effective approach is to intervene at the point of work.  Deal with the issues which people already find difficult or frustrating. Remove the conditions which impose upon them the negative behaviours which we want to eliminate. Give them a sense of purpose to fix their ideas upon – how things could change for the better and what THEY can do about it.

Reading:

Drucker PF ( 1993) Managing for the Future: the 1990s and beyond New York: NY, Dutton.

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science, Penguin Group Portfolio, NY

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

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