Overcoming resistance to change.

boulderIn my previous blog on change readiness assessment tools (“And the first step when initiating a major change programme is….?”), I highlighted the pivotal role organisational culture plays in the adoption or rejection of a major change initiative. Having written the blog, two outstanding questions on the subject are:

  1. What do you do when your change assessment confirms that the organisation is highly resistant to the forthcoming change?
  2. What are the levers for changing an organisational culture?

Undoubtedly, you need to be planning in two timeframes: short term fixes – so you can start to implement the change programme with some degree of confidence, and a longer term strategy to promote a more change-able culture.

Very often, the short term interventions centre on more / better leadership communications. These need to address the what, why, how doubts through:

  • more visible advocacy of the vision and complete congruence between what they are saying and how they are behaving
  • better alignment of the messaging across the leadership team
  • better articulation of a vision that resonates at all levels right across the organisation and reassurance on definitive proposals for getting there

The culture change piece is obviously a more complex and longer term proposition.

Organisational culture excites a lot of diverse views and interest. An article by Executive Coach Michael Watkins based on a HBR discussion group on “What is organizational culture? And why should we care?” collected more than 300 responses and took on a life of its own. Watkins’ article began:

While there is universal agreement that (a) [organisational culture] exists, and (b) that it plays a crucial role in shaping behaviour in organisations, there is little consensus on what organisational culture actually is, never mind how it influences behaviour and whether it is something leaders can change.”

The starting point when considering your own organisation’s culture is how to condense the swirling mass of beliefs, behaviours, politics and procedures into a comprehensible definition of your “culture”. I quite like the simple but smart analytical methodology proposed by the Hagberg Consulting Group: five question that can really help to get at the essence of an organisational culture:

  • What 10 words would you use to describe your company?
  • Around here, what’s really important?
  • Around here, who gets promoted?
  • Around here, what behaviours get rewarded?
  • Around here, who fits in and who doesn’t?

However, analysis of an organisation’s culture only takes you so far. Understanding how an organisation expresses itself in specific areas such as reward and recognition does not tell you how to set about changing it.

In many organisations, the culture was established very early on by the charismatic activity and leadership of a founder. Subsequent leaders, with enough time at the helm or during key periods of growth or transition, can significantly influence the organisation’s culture, but it is not something that can be altered simply by “rearranging some standard building blocks”. Where an organisation is displaying strong change averse characteristics, the blockers are likely to be well entrenched and hard to shift.

The purposeful reinvention of a corporate culture from the top down is difficult to achieve, takes time and focused effort, and will happen only under strong, visionary leadership.


Postscript: one of the more unusual and perceptive case studies I found on strategies for changing a corporate culture was written by management consultant Peter Bregman back in 2009 which concludes:

We live by stories. We tell them, repeat them, listen to them carefully, and act in accordance with the. We can change our stories and be changed by them.” As a communicator, this really appealed to me.


About madeleinekavanagh

Internal comms specialist with a career spanning advertising, car sales and management consulting. My greatest legacy (so far) - my son!
This entry was posted in Business Leadership, Change, Culture, Leadership Behaviours, People management / motivation, Story telling and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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