By Tip Fallon
Organizational Culture: the way things are done around here.
Every organization and (group within an organization) has a culture of its own. In my experience though, few make an effort to determine how their culture will affect organizational change efforts. This, in part, makes it difficult for organizations to change. It takes a lot of effort to understand the unique qualities of a culture, let alone to create space for changes in culture. People do not like to compromise their culture – their beliefs, worldviews, and values that inform their identity. And the larger the organizational change effort, the more likely it is that the change may conflict with the existing culture. As Peter Drucker succinctly reminds us, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
A real world example: A nonprofit organization made a major investment and aligned their strategy around a program to increase engagement by providing incentives to volunteers. The plan seemed logical and even cutting edge in the design but the organization was not getting the results the CEO wanted. One factor at play was that this new program conflicted with beliefs of some staff members that volunteerism should be intrinsically meaningful, not something to be done in exchange of a reward. As a result of this conflict in underlying beliefs, there was resistance and lack of commitment among employees which ultimately reduced engagement.
There are dozens of situations in which cultural factors impact organizational change. A few examples, and by no means a comprehensive list, are during:
- Changes in team structure
- Leadership change
- Mission or strategy change
- New processes
So what does culture consist of?
Culture consists of the thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and world-views that inform our decisions and actions.
Elements of culture can be categorized as either visible or invisible (to both insiders and outsiders alike). Some examples:
Edward Hall and Gary Weaver show us that culture is like an iceberg. We can only see the small portion that is visible above the water. But the true mass that forms the iceberg is below the surface and not visible. Imagine you are standing on an iceberg that represents your team and its culture and your team is going to merge with another team, who is standing on another iceberg that represents their culture. What you can see of one another’s culture above the water looks similar enough so you start moving closer together. Unexpectedly though, just as you are getting close enough to collaborate, things get shaky. Conflict may erupt, people may disengage, or play political games, fingers are pointed, and performance begins to suffer. This is because the invisible elements of culture are clashing beneath the surface.
It’s the invisible elements that will sink your change.
When embarking on change where culture will have a significant impact, consider working with someone who can help you understand the invisible elements of your culture and how they are going to impact your change.
How is culture impacting your organization and change?
Hall, E. T. (1976) Beyond Culture [New York: Doubleday]
Weaver, G. R. (1986). “Understanding and coping with cross-cultural adjustment stress”. In Paige R. M. (Ed.), Cross-Cultural Orientation, New Conceptualizations and Applications. [Lanham, MD: University Press of America]
French, W., & Bell, C. (1995). Organization development. (5th Ed.). [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall International]