7 Reasons why leaders need to understand the dynamics of cultural change? (Part Two)

This is the second in a two part series examining leadership and cultural change by Sharon Turnbull (Cycle Director IMPM). (to read the first in the series click here).

In the first of this series, I began by illustrating why it is so important for leaders to address the reasons for cultural change. On the International Masters Program for Practicing Managers (IMPM) we deal with the topic of culture in the very first module and it lays the foundation for the modules that follow in Montreal, Yokohama, Bangalore and Rio de Janeiro. Based on the theory and my observations of senior managers who have been on the IMPM over the past 21 years, I have come to the following conclusions.

2. The effects of conflict within the senior leadership group

One of the most common causes of disillusionment amongst subordinates is conflict within the senior leadership team, not least because it is rarely possible to hide this from others in the organisation. Subordinates’ antennae are specially tuned in to detecting inauthentic and inconsistent behaviours in their leaders. These contradictions can spark off a range of confused and counter-productive feelings and behaviours. Torn between loyalty for the whole and loyalty for their direct boss, they are no longer certain of the messages they are supposed to follow. Professor Peter Anthony, a well-known British scholar of organisational culture, referred to this syndrome as ‘organisational schizophrenia”, and warned leaders not to ignore these symptoms.

3. Rivalries, fiefdoms and silos

Existing tensions between units and departments can often be aggravated by a co-location or merger. Ignoring these or hoping that they will be addressed by an assertive top-down approach rarely works. Indeed, the introduction of new ideas and behaviours tends to magnify, not reduce, entrenched behaviours. Insufficient reinforcement and integration of the messages of the change programme within other organisational forums, e.g. strategy and business planning meetings, and systems and processes which are inconsistent with the values of your cultural change, will send out contradictory messages.

4. Preaching the new but rewarding the old

Another significant danger for leaders is allowing a cultural change to be perceived as separate and unconnected from the organisation’s main focus. If this happens, people will assume that they need not take it seriously, and so continue with ‘business as usual’. We have frequently seen organisations continuing to promote people who display ‘old’ cultural values long after investing significant time and effort in conveying a new cultural message. Senior leaders are often the most culpable of this – since their own rise to seniority is invariably connected to successful displays of ‘old’ behaviours and values, and they themselves may only just be coming to terms with the new social order.

5. Organisational Disillusionment

Our research has shown that organisational changes start by raising hope. Most subordinates are willing to trust their leaders until disappointed. However, the inevitable outcome of not being able to live up to the expectations created by this hope is disillusionment. I have witnessed many disillusioned employees who have trusted their leaders to deliver a promised vision, but instead have seen inconsistency, lack of tenacity, and contradiction. The stronger the hope generated at the start, the stronger the disillusionment if leaders let them down.

6. Plans for change are too static and inflexible

We live in turbulent times. This means that strategies inevitably need to constantly evolve to meet the demands of the external context. However, it is often the case that plans for change programmes are static, designed to meet immediate needs, and unable to respond quickly enough to the changing strategic and political context. Consequently, they are deemed to be obsolete before they have achieved their aims or objectives, and instead of evolving to meet new needs, they are abandoned mid-roll out.

7. Blind faith in a formula

Formulaic approaches to leading cultural change are inevitably too simplistic. Any prescription that advocates a step-by-step approach without recognising the complexity of organisational behaviour and the uniqueness of each organisation is destined to failure. Even in this increasingly complex world, leaders who seek to understand deeply and act on the complexity of organisational change are still in a minority. It is this deep understanding, however, that will facilitate successful cultural change.

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