Does Your Company Culture Help or Hurt Change Management?

by Edgar Wilson

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

Agent K, Men in Black

Any single person may be able to handle profound change alone; but in a group, that same tolerance and receptivity can go up or down, depending on the culture of the group.

Does your company’s culture protect and insulate employees from change, or give them credit for being able to handle ambiguity and gracefully adapt?

Dealing with change is not an episodic concern, or something that comes and goes with any predictability. That is why a realistic approach to change management must be built into the company culture, and given regular attention and consideration. In a negative company culture, several major features can contribute to rocky transitions or outright resistance to change; dealing with them starts before disruptive transformations, not in response to them.

Are You With Us or Against Us?

Management and employees can think, feel, act, and look like they are competing teams, rather than cooperative elements of the same organization. Their different roles necessitate different perspectives; but that can also lead to differing priorities, and conflicting expectations. When a challenging situation—like an important new change—comes up, it stands a good chance of exacerbating this negative dynamic.

It doesn’t have to end this way. Managing the way tribes can form around issues often has to do with how changes are framed. Business professor Terry Conry of Ohio University advocates the merits of “mutual gains bargaining” or MGB, in which parties to a debate or conflict communicate interests, rather than demands or positions. Taken from his study of labor negotiations, Conry found that the language of a dispute plays an important role in managing and resolving problems in a way that everyone can feel satisfied with—as opposed to some feeling they sacrificed too much and got too little.

In the context of managing change, this means trading out “evolve or die” language in favor of recognizing exactly why some feel threatened or disrupted, and others expect a compliant transition. The group doesn’t fear or resist change collectively, but individuals may find they share some reservations. Dealing with these concerns and interests—rather than demands being made as a collective bargain, or forcing expectations down on them—can help smooth things over and make individuals more receptive.

Scrutinizing or Empathizing?

As your organization makes a major transition, how do you characterize the people least enthusiastic about the change? Are they being left behind, or are they failing to keep up?

If you go looking for problems in your team, you will find them: incompetence, laziness, disloyalty, malcontents. But in the interest of making transitions both successful and positive for the people involved, it is better to be understanding than scrutinizing. Instead of seeing employee problems, maybe you will find the fear, confusion, and stress that are responsibly for obstructing or resisting change.

Managing change requires mutual accountability, not just in terms of performance, but in understanding the how’s and the why’s of the people involved. For leaders, it should be less important to identify who is struggling to cope than to understand why, and deal with the causes compassionately.

Again, individuals frustrated by changes will look for compassion and understanding. If they don’t get that from their leadership, they will turn to each other. Before you know it, commiserating employees can turn to disgruntled workers, more satisfied with their own version of the transition than the out-of-touch management’s.

Those being left behind have been failed by their leadership, and require not just critical attention, but real empathy. If empathy has been ingrained in your company culture, then making it a priority throughout periods of change should come naturally.

Engaged Solutions

Do you want to have solutions handed to you, or be a part of creating them?

Effectively navigating through a major transition should involve a little bit of both. An effective vision for change looks at the past—the status quo—as well as the present (the transition phase) and the future (where are we hoping to end up?) in an effort to anticipate problems and obstacles. While leaders are responsible for developing and sharing their vision, they must also accept that ideas don’t just come from the top down.

A culture of engagement values ideas, and fosters communication to ensure all ideas can be aired freely. During a managed change, this culture is critical to ensuring obstacles can be recognized, and solutions work-shopped. Not only are engaged employees more productive in general, they can become more effective troubleshooters and problem-solvers.

People don’t want to feel they are caught in an irresistible tide of change—they want to be a part of the force leading the group, adding to the moment instead of simply riding it. Being able to voice their ideas requires engagement, as well as empathy and respect from leadership.

Not only do engaged workers help navigate change, they can help stimulate it. In a company that heeds and deliberately manages its culture, innovation thrives.

image credit: Lars Plougmann

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Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached on Twitter.

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