In an excerpt from her new book, Lucinda Carney outlines how to deal with some of the scenarios that threaten to derail culture change.
Six types of Cultural Challenges
Now we are in a position to address individual conflict, it is worth looking at other covert Cultural Challenges that can undermine change if we are not prepared for it. They can be caused by specific individuals, subgroups or cultural norms.
Whatever the cause, it is worth us being able to recognize some of these common blockers to change. Here are a few examples that you may have come across and ideas on how to combat them.
A ‘no’ culture
This is the sort of organizational culture that may overvalue critical analysis to such an extent that almost anyone can say ‘no’ to change but hardly anyone can say ‘yes’. Many of us have experienced organizations filled with cynics and critics who can always find a good reason not to do something.
Pushing back and resisting change by being critical is an easy way to avoid taking risks. If we can understand the root of the issue, then we can be better prepared to deal with this kind of challenge. We can prepare our business case complete with full analysis of the risks and potential benefits of the change.
It is also worth booking one-to-one, face-to-face meetings with those at the top table before you present your paper, if you are to be confident of keeping it on the agenda and gaining support.
When presenting our message, we can pre-empt some of the likely perceived risks by explaining how we have considered these and have risk mitigation in place. We need to remove the fear and make it easy for people to say ‘yes’.
Often, introducing a change project as a trial, pilot or proof of concept makes it easier to overcome the ‘no’ culture.
This is similar to the ‘no’ culture in that people push back on any change, almost automatically and without real consideration. It can be really frustrating for the Change Agent, who might feel rejected without any logical answer or fair hearing.
Again, certain people tend to be more likely to act like this than others and some may say it is also about fear or insecurity. Whatever the cause, the most effective way of overcoming this Cultural Challenger is by involvement. Identify the people most likely to block the change early and get their input.
If you can, take a suggestion or quote from them and incorporate it into the plan or change messaging. In other words, make them feel like they played a key part in developing the change or even that it was their idea in the first place.
Playing the game
This is when any decision, however small, must be turned into a detailed board paper and signed off by the executive team. It is particularly common in bureaucratic organizations and is probably driven by a combination of lack of confidence by those at the top and an institutionalized mindset.
Often, it seems that the purpose is about creating an audit trail of data that will protect the ultimate decision-makers in future, should their decisions be questioned. This type of environment can be exhausting for the wellmeaning Change Agent as they eagerly knock over the various barriers and hurdles in the pursuit of getting a decision made, only to have their paper discarded at the last minute.
These cultures are very difficult to change and require a combination of being seen to ‘play the game’ by writing the paper and gaining sponsorship from the most influential person at the top of the organization.
It is sad to say, but it is also the type of culture where Change Agents should be selective in the changes that they get involved in and only choose those with strong sponsorship. If you are going to prepare a board paper, why not try a PowerPoint or a summary ‘one-pager’?
This still creates an audit trail but can get your point across faster. It is also worth booking one-to-one, face-to-face meetings with those at the top table before you present your paper, if you are to be confident of keeping it on the agenda and gaining support.
Keeping up with the Joneses
This kind of culture reflects a perceived competitiveness in the marketplace, where there is a constant focus on what others are doing. This is sometimes indicative of a ‘me-too’ marketplace where there is little to differentiate one product or company from others, reflecting a lack of confidence in the market position or strategy by the leadership.
The tendency here is to avoid making decisions unless others are seen to be doing the same thing. Obviously, the best way to get decisions or support for change here is to use the competition as a reference point for your business case.
Give examples or case studies of how others have made the same decisions and had brilliant results. Try creating urgency around potential resource shortage or likely competitor behaviour.
After the meeting ends, debate begins
This links to our conversation on conflict, where on the surface people are smiling and pleasant about our plan, but the real debate only takes place behind the scenes. Often, this is down to one very dominant or powerful individual who others don’t feel able to challenge.
Like covert conflict, this is difficult to address if it is invisible. As Change Agents we need to be able to identify where this is happening and bring it to the surface, otherwise we end up with very political situations where decisions are made behind closed doors and meetings and collaboration create cynicism because they constitute an empty ritual.
If this is the culture around the board table and we are relatively junior Change Agents, there is very little we can do personally. Perhaps we can raise this with human resources, who might set the scene for some executive coaching or board development by bringing in a neutral facilitator who can build trust and promote insight.
Once the team are open to being more effective, the facilitator can work with them to uncover rules and codes of conduct. This is likely to take some time but should result in people expressing their views on future change more openly.
Keep your head down and it will go away
Many organizations have experienced a succession of change initiatives, many of which have not been completed. Even when initially proclaimed as urgent, the direction might have shifted and the change simply didn’t happen. Perhaps the business requirement changed, or the leadership simply didn’t manage the change through to completion.
Whatever the cause, the result tends to be jaded employees who will react to the next change with cynicism, whatever it is. The real challenge for the Change Agent is convincing these cynics that this time the change is for real.
There are three ways of aiming to achieve this; first, plan your change really well, think about potential obstacles and how to overcome them up front. The second point is to acknowledge that previous changes haven’t been completed, but communicate clearly that this one is here to stay, with firm backing from a credible sponsor.
Finally, ensure that the change is followed through to completion.
In conclusion of Part II of this book, we can see that this chapter has raised some of the more nuanced challengers to change. In the case of overt conflict we will almost certainly notice the challenge and our response will vary according to our level of comfort with conflict.
However, covert conflict and many of the Cultural Challenges outlined above are more insidious and easier to avoid than they are to address.
Drawing attention to Cultural Challenges gives us the choice to utilize our Change Superpowers from the first part of the book and influence a better outcome for all. Combining these skills with our awareness of potential challenges puts us in a better position to plan for change rather than just react to it.
About the author
Lucinda Carney is a chartered occupational psychologist and the author of How to be a Change Superhero, published by Practical Inspiration Publishing and available to buy here.