Leading Change in the 21st Century: 4 Myths About Cultural Change

These days cultural change is a topic that is high on the agenda of many corporate executives. It looks like almost each change initiative within companies is linked to changing its culture. Many leaders proclaim that the ability to change/adjust the culture is crucial for the future success of their company. Cultural change is hot! But it is also difficult to accomplish. It always was, and is maybe even more difficult in the fast changing environments in which companies find themselves today.

I witness many leaders struggle with this. Cultural change initiatives that get stuck, that run dry, and that do not result in the desired behavior and corporate climate. And many times it has directly or indirectly to do with misunderstanding what it actually takes to create cultural change. There are some persistent myths about how to change a culture that hinder companies from being successful at it. Let’s list four myths that stick out:

1) It all starts with changing people’s thinking

Correct, if people don’t change their thinking they will not show a sustained change in behavior. But it is wrong to believe we can talk people into a different way of thinking. Our thinking changes as soon as we experience or understand things differently. And this only happens by stepping outside our comfort zones. It requires action to expand our comfort zones and by doing so we create a different way of thinking.

Cultural change: explain why and what we want to change in our behavior, but real change only happens by starting to change our actions in line with that desired behavior. (For a nice case study on this I recommend the MIT Sloan article: How to Change a Culture – Lessons from NUMMI)

2) The more we create one culture, the better

This maybe was the case in the 80’s or 90’s, but in the 21st century companies are facing  globalized markets and economies. This means that nurturing diversity and creating cross-cultural alignment have become crucial ingredients of successful cultures.

Cultural change: leaders and managers need to build cross-cultural leadership competencies and will have to be able to understand and lead diverse teams in companies with multiple sub-cultures. Focus will be on creating a corporate identity (sense of belonging) within a cross-cultural environment. (Also read our earlier article on Cultural Alignment)

3) If middle management is not driving the change, it will fail

‘Our middle managers are holding a key position in the company. Without their commitment and dedication it will fail. So they have to be the dominant driving force for this change process.’ A common misconception that more than once creates cultural change programs that are ‘owned’ by the HR department, ‘forced’ upon managers, ‘educated’ to employees, and where there is a ‘great absence’ of senior leadership. Often you hear people complain: “why should we change if they don’t change?”

Cultural change: senior leaders lead by example and communicate about why a change in culture is needed. They clarify the key values that are related to it. They define in close collaboration with the middle management how they want to see this reflected in the desired behavior of everyone in the company. And they also change their own behavior accordingly! Senior leaders are the key drivers and people watch them more than ever. Therefore senior leaders (up to the C-suite and the Board) are omnipresent in the change process.

4) We make desired behavior visible by focusing on success stories

Are we? What are the situations on which these stories are based? Many times I find out that these stories are based on situations where people ‘went with the flow’. The behavior was indeed the desired behavior, but it was rather easy to choose to act this way because the situation was easy. But what if people and teams have to perform under pressure? What if they are facing problems? What if emotions and stress are taking over? These are the situations that reveal best what the desired behavior actually is and what it takes to show it.

Cultural change: pay special attention to how we behave and collaborate in difficult situations. These are moments where people are often pushed outside their comfort zones, and these moments are great opportunities to change people’s actions (see the first myth).  

What is your experience with leading cultural change? Do you experience some of these 4 myths in action, or maybe others? How do you deal with it? What is the impact on your leadership? Do you have questions you want to share? Feel free to leave a comment below or to contact us.

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Photo: Sean MacEntee/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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As international business consultant, change leader, leadership team facilitator and executive coach Aad supports senior executives and leadership teams of multinational companies. Over more than 25 years he has acquired a vast experience and expertise in three key topics: leading complex change, cross-cultural leadership, and post-merger integration. Find out more about Aad and his services. Feel free to contact Aad.

3 Comments on “Leading Change in the 21st Century: 4 Myths About Cultural Change

  1. When leading cultural change, perhaps the most important skill a leader can have is the ability to communicate effectively. Having worked on significant projects requiring cultural change for success, I’ve often seen leaders are so overwhelmed with the change themselves that they don’t take the time to communicate effectively with their team to help them adjust. We need to help leaders to be successful by coaching them to allocate a fair amount of time to interacting with their team. In addition, we need to work with them to develop verbal and written communication skills as well as helping them understand that their body language is sending a message as well.

    Like

    • Pam,
      Thanks for your comment. Dealing with change yourself and simultaneously supporting your team to deal with it effectively is absolutely one of the defining abilities of successful leaders. And communication is crucial in this.

      Like

  2. Greetings! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a
    new project in a community in the same niche.
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    Like

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