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The Development of Culture Change

It’s interesting working in the arena of organization development. All to often managers are confounded by the fact that the employees resist any form of change whether the changes are better for the organization, will secure their jobs, and will most probably make the employees lives better.

Organizations spend thousands of pounds and many hours putting together information packs and communication plans to explain the changes, but no amount of information, no matter how rational, will seeming move those who chose not to be moved. What is more frustrating is that those who refuse to toe and line, and who engage in acts of corporate terrorism will be able to justify their bad behaviour with a perfectly rational and logic line of reasoning– even if the rational remains unreasonable. Further investigation will also unveil the truth, which is that the most reluctant will invent fabrications about the real motives of those trying to push for change, even if those reasons are nothing more than lying to ourselves.

Human behaviour, the mind and each individual’s personality are nothing if not curious and fascinating.

You see we don’t like to consider ourselves as being irrational. We need to deceive ourselves into believing that our bad behaviour is rational. If we are unable to cope with a current situation we may begin to regress, acting out like a petulant teenager, or we might use a displacement defence where we know we have to be strong, so we take out our frustration on a process of change that makes us feel fearful. Finally we might take hide from, and refuse to acknowledge the change that we are experiencing by repressing that which we are finding intolerable from our conscious mind and continuing as if nothing has changed at all.

Social Psychologist Leon Festinger described the discomfort we feel when we modify our beliefs so that we can make two contradictory ideas compatible as ‘cognitive dissonance.’ The more we believe that we are right in our belief that the change is bad, the more effort we will put into proving that we are right – and any information is used to confirm the rightness of our beliefs. If we are lying to ourselves we must in someway justify our lie to continue believing that we are a good person. (Rosenburg, 2011)

Culture or rather ‘the way we do things around here’ exacerbates the cognitive dissonance that individuals develop during a change programme.  The effectiveness of an organization can be seriously compromised if efforts to make changes conflicts with an organization’s norms, standards, working practices and values, potential creating conflict and toxicity around the change efforts.

Take for example the current context of the environmental peril that our planet is in. If we don’t change the way we do things then our grandchildren will quite possible face extinction. The problem is that we have accepted the truth of ‘plenty’ and of not having to count the external costs of our actions for such a long time that the rules and expectations of 21st Century human culture, especially in the Western World is currently stopping us from acting rationally in the best interests of our long term survival.  Organization’s can face similar problems in areas that are in obvious need of change, possibly where the way things are done around here is causing the organization to lose business or damage its reputation and yet still change efforts are met with resistance.

Since we are social creatures, doing things differently, changing to such an extent means that we have to go outside group norms. For example the terms Tree Hugger, eco-warrior and nature loving hippy have for a long time been used as insults and denote that the person acting with a belief structure that puts the environment first is in someway uncivilised. Even those organizations that are pursuing green and environmentally friendly agendas wrap their actions up in more acceptable business language of sustainability, Plan A and corporate social responsibility, it goes against our culture that these organizations should say that they care about the planet.

If you are trying to implement a change programme, it is important to consider how people are acting as a group, not just individually. When individuals are unsure how to behave they will look to the community of which they are part to understand what the norms are, which are usually driven by their peers. If there is someone who strongly represents the group displaying signs of cognitive dissonance, then that will determine what reaction the group will have as a whole to the change situation.

Individuals who have a lot lose and in the current hierarchy are in a privileged position will seek to maintain the traditions that keep them in a position of privilege, regardless of the expense to others. Destructive behaviour in a change situation will always be strongest where individuals who fear change the most are in a position of influence within the wider community.

To make the change your organization seeks, it is essential that you first understand those who are key stakeholders, and help them to transition their thinking prior to any change programme happening. That way the individuals who have most impact on cultural norms can help the group express their reaction to change, which in turn will help make the change journey smooth.

Organization Development offers an alternative to the ‘information centric’ approach to change management.  Rather than a top down change that tells people how to think and act, organization development takes the organization on a journey of discovery.  Leaders are taught to role model, coach and teach so they can reflect the change that is being asked for.  For individual employees, OD interventions create safe places for them to consider the areas of thinking and belief structures that might need to change, and provides the tools for the individual to make that change themselves.  For groups it helps transition the change through careful facilitation of groups dynamics to help the group help each other make the transition.  Finally, OD considers the reinforcement mechanisms within the organization, processes and systems which will support the culture change going forward, and removing barriers to the successful change.

OD Practitioner considerations for Culture Change

  1. Know the business beyond an organization chart and what the leaders tell you.  Investigate, question and discover;  How are things done? What makes the organization tick?  What is the underlying rhythm of the business?
  2. If you don’t know find out, and use the right OD tools for the situation.
  3. BE the change, coach, mentor and position yourself as a conduit of change.
  4. Ensure Change goals are relevant, and focused on people relationships and behaviour especially in regards to how processes and systems within the organization reinforce or inhibit people processes.
  5. Support leaders to create the climate for change
  6. Develop plans that reward behaviours that reinforce the desired culture change but also manage areas where there is reversion to old behaviours.
  7. Handle uncertainty and ambiguity with confidence.
  8. Use methods that work on both the mind, in regards to intellectual stimulation but also the heart, in regards to emotion.
  9. Create experiences and opportunities for people to explore new behaviours within a positive framework
  10. Always develop methods that reinforce new ways of working.