Traveling internationally for the past few weeks, I am reminded of the impact culture has on our ability to effectively lead and implement changes throughout our organizations. As much as the world continues to become homogenous at an alarming speed and many people and cultures try to emulate the West, they rarely get past the superficial aspects of culture. It is the deep-seated experiences, history, values, mores, beliefs and behaviors of small groups and mega-complex societies that form culture. These individual and collective attributes of the people being impacted by changes are what makes it challenging for us to not only make change happen but understand why someone might resist the changes we are trying to implement.
Despite our efforts to focus on and understand the cultural complexities, our expertise and insight aren’t usually sufficient nor do we choose to take the time to anticipate and predict culture-based resistance to change.
Sponsors and Change Agents need to be reminded of the complexity of culture and the uncertainties they are likely to encounter when they are leading the implementation of change. Of the many aspects of change we try to understand and manage, I believe culture is the most difficult and most unpredictable. Despite our efforts to focus on and understand the cultural complexities, our expertise and insight aren’t usually sufficient nor do we choose to take the time to anticipate and predict culture-based resistance to change.
What I have learned is that the impact of culture on any change cannot be ignored. No matter how hard we try to consciously or unconsciously disregard the impact of geography, language, values, history, experiences, leadership, business practices, communication styles, etc., the individuals impacted by the change will remind us in subtle and obvious ways that culture cannot be overlooked. They — the people of the organization — quietly shut down because we unknowingly offend them. We empower them to make decisions, but they really want to be told what to do, when and how. They need to hear communications delivered by senior leadership, but we always have Change Agents deliver the messages. They may not consider women to have the same status as men, yet we place a women in the role of program leader without the full support that is required. We may view these cultural faux pas as slight missteps. The reality is that we may have committed offensive blunders that forever cast a shadow over the project and potential success of the change.
Those who are impacted by our changes deserve our focused attention. They are completely justified in their expectation that we understand their culture: who they are, what is important to them, what behaviors are and are not acceptable, their preferences regarding communication, leadership and decision-making, their history and how it influences their thinking, values and perspectives. As Sponsors and Change Agents, we need to have the cultural insight such that our actions mitigate resistance, not accentuate or increase resistance. This focus is not brain surgery. We know it is important but we often avoid the necessary due diligence – deciding it is easier to clean up after our blunders rather than invest in preventing them from ever happening.
Managing the impact of culture on change is an important role for Sponsors and Change Agents. No matter how experienced they are, they find it challenging and often don’t know where to focus their efforts. Initiating the effort is often the hardest part of resistance mitigation. To help Sponsors and Change Agents understand and address their culture anxiety, I find it valuable to create a simple Culture Impact Check of key groups impacted by change.
The Project Team, Change Agents and Sponsors need to ask themselves how the many aspects of culture will impact the change as it relates to:
- Geography – Differences of where, facilities, people, functions and customers are located
- Organization – Differences among and between Business units, functions, facilities and departments
- Country/Ethnic Background – Impact of cultural heritage, history, and historical allies and enemies
- Gender – Perceptions aligned to male/female status, position, role, value, etc.
- Language – Reactions to a single business language OR management of multiple languages
- Perception and Value of Time – Challenges when time mindedness of those impacted differs
- Values and Mores – Differences in opinions and actions of “right and wrong”
- Anchor Beliefs and Behaviors – Differences in core beliefs at the center of business decisions, people and organizational words, actions and policies and investment and profit sharing choices
- Organizational History – Challenges when components of the business don’t share the same history, business profile and/or support the same product/services lines
- Leadership & Decision Making – Reactions to directive, collaborative, consensus, facilitative, group, public or private approaches
- Performance Feedback – Perceptions of feedback; positive or negative, welcomed or resisted, required or recommended, prescriptive or recommended
- Communication Styles – Differences in face-to-face, leader led, personal, public, written, detailed, or abbreviated
- Learning Preferences – Differences in facilitator led, self-paced, on-line, just-in-time, detailed or abbreviated
- Reward/Reinforcement/Recognition Preferences – difference in preferences: public or private, words or tokens, formal or informal, accepted or rejected