Culture change is a human experience. It’s not just a business imperative, as it has been viewed for decades, as reflected in the following examples. “If we’re going to grow, we have to change the culture,” or “This culture is toxic, and it is affecting our customer service.” These examples reflect a perspective that is short-sighted and can be detrimental to the success of your business and employees. For culture change to have a chance of becoming contagious, leaders should more deeply understand how business needs and the human experience of change can work in concert. Together, these two can help navigate change pitfalls. More on those in a moment.
It is a physiological response to see change as a threat. When you announce, for example, that your culture needs to evolve, upon learning the news, employees will have an emotional reaction to the announcement. The brain will immediately evaluate the information to determine whether it is a threat. The part of the brain that responds to the change is the amygdala. This region of the brain prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response. This is your body’s reaction to change.
The simplified explanation above gives executives a critical insight into understanding their employees’ response to change. It is a mental short to assume employees’ resistance is an outcome of their personal feelings about the executive or personal attachment to what will change. It’s a slippery slope down a long rabbit hole to come to and believe such conclusions. It will derail your progress.
There is nothing any well-meaning executive can do to prevent employees from having an emotional response to change. This pitfall is not the only one many leaders have tripped into unknowingly; we can learn from many others to avoid. Here’s a short list of some pitfalls we encounter with clients. I’ve included some suggestions to counter the deleterious effects on the commitment to culture change.
Avoid These Culture Change Pitfalls
Fanfare. Announcing change at an event won’t only trigger employees to roll their eyes; they see it as the start of a long slog that yields more chaos than clarity.
An alternative to a major change event is to appeal to the emotional element of change. You can do this by enlisting change champions. Together, you can socialize the change in smaller settings that involve employees’ peers. Spend time authentically talking about the need for change, the concerns, and the possibilities. In smaller settings, employees will feel more comfortable engaging in the conversation. Your intention is to use to your advantage the amygdala’s effect on employees’ thinking. You want to initiate conversation right away. It is always better to know what your employees think rather than assume how they feel or what they think about the pending change.
Fail to Use Stories. When you decide to initiate culture change, it’s likely a byproduct of careful consideration and conversations with your team. The change becomes rational to you. Steven Pinker calls this “the curse of knowledge.” Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, defines this as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” The more you think about the need for change, the harder it is for you to relate the information to others who will hear the news for the first time.1
To help avoid this pitfall, use stories to help employees connect to the need for change. Paul Zak, professor and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, explains that when we hear a compelling story, our brain releases oxytocin, also known as the “love drug.” This neuropeptide is released in the brain and helps us to see people as more trustworthy. What’s more, Zak writes that it helps us to see people as “generous, charitable, and compassionate,” and makes us more sensitive to engage to help others.2
Find stories that help you genuinely convey the need for a culture shift. Remember that the business needs for change are only part of the messaging. Be sure to tap into the human element of change.
Failure to Grasp and Shape the Informal Organization. Businesses are made up of micro-cultures and micro-climates. This includes networks and coalitions of employees that are not visible on the organization chart. Do not ignore the informal organization.
When you begin to socialize the need for culture change, involve those who are part of networks and coalitions. A partnership with influential people and groups will help you make momentum and progress. A word of warning: be mindful that not all who fall into the informal organization will be willing to partner with you. Don’t get caught dealing with their resistance before engaging those who are willing to listen and partner. It will create a serious drag on momentum.
Human nature cannot be neatly summed up in a blog post. The same applies to the pitfalls of change. Unfortunately, bringing a culture change to your organization is riddled with them. To properly position your company for success, remember change is a human experience and is emotional. When you marry these two realities with compelling business needs, you better prepare your people for a new reality.
Special Opportunity: For more insights on culture, consider these upcoming opportunities:
- Complimentary Webinar, August 22, 2017. A free, online, interactive learning session that we’re excited to host—Shift Your Culture and Accelerate Performance: A How-to Webinar. Please join us for this info-packed session. Description and registration details here.
- The 3rd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, October 3, 2017. Featured presenters include Marshall Goldsmith, Robert Cooke, Edgar Schein, Peter Fuda and others who will take a deeper dive into the leadership and culture connection. Join us to network with and learn from the brightest in leadership and culture at this one-of-kind event. Invite a colleague! Register today.
1Pinker, S. 2014. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin
2Zak, P.J. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum, Jan-Feb, 2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445577/