In the current business climate, corporations seem to change cultures as often as their CEOs change socks. Culture change in corporations is often breathtakingly rapid because only the largest multinational corporations can get away with gradual change. Change is never easy, and it can be traumatic for some, especially when it’s rapid and broad in its scope. But a company streamlines its in-house culture to redesign the way it does business. Consequently, it’s a manager’s duty to invest effort in cultural changes and to encourage the development team to do the same.
Culture change is an area of considerable confusion for the modern workforce. In the corporate setting, it’s easily confused with the changes that occur in the world around us, but they are two very different forces. Culture change in general is the result of many forces, with no real directing hand. But culture change in your company comes about very deliberately, with specific goals and intent. It happens because someone at the top sees a need for changes, outlines those changes, and exerts power to implement them.
And this is another critical difference: Culture change in the world around us is a bottom-up phenomenon, bubbling up from the masses, whereas corporate culture change is a top-down process.
The need to buy in
The only way a culture can change is if its participants change it. Whether it’s the changing role of women in the real world or a management reorganization in your company, change only works if those affected by it say it works and make it work. Top-down or not, corporate culture change isn’t something that can be implemented with a memo.
That makes you, a line manager, an enabler. The decision makers who see the need for change will rely on you and your peers to help bring those changes about. So your first duty is to consider the reasons behind the change, and what you can do to move it along.
Enabling is what culture change is all about. The idea is to modify the work environment to make it easier to initiate new processes, behaviors, and lines of communication. If an in-house culture change is needed, it’s generally because there’s some way of doing things or some mindset that stands in the way and must be removed. Whether senior management is right or wrong about the required changes, it’s your task to recognize the need for change. Make an honest effort to fully understand the company’s goals.
Resistance is inevitable
If you undergo major change in your company and get no resistance from the troops, pick up the phone and call the folks at the Guinness Book of World Records. Corporate culture change always meets with resistance. People are people and, more often than not, they don’t like change. To overcome resistance to change, you need to understand it.
Everybody has one, and everybody goes out of his or her way to cultivate it once it’s found. Each member of your team has created a comfort zone and lives in it on a day-to-day basis. Now the people upstairs want to overturn it all? Naturally, the disruption of their comfort zones is a large part of people’s resistance to culture change.
Redrawing the lines
The company’s organization chart may or may not be affected by what’s happening, but the lines of communication almost certainly will be. Whether your people are comfortable with the existing authority structure, changes of this kind can be threatening and awkward to implement, even when they’re desired and needed.
Some will interpret major change in the work environment as a sign that things aren’t going well with the company or, at the very least, as uncertainty. For better or worse, many in the workplace feel that their role defines them. Some reassurance is called for.
Control what you can
What can you do about all this uncertainty and upheaval? Quite a bit. First, you need to understand that perceptions change quickly but that behaviors change slowly. If it weren’t so, then culture change truly could be implemented with a memo. But perception is something that’s largely in your hands. Use this and go to work, smoothing the way for change by reassuring your team and helping them get on board.
Once you have directives from on high in hand, meet with your team. Whether it’s changes in reporting, dress code issues, or whatever, let your team know about them as soon as possible and solicit team members’ input. Invite open discussion and “just listen.” You aren’t holding this meeting to decide anything or make promises. You’re just informing your people of what’s coming, and letting them respond. There will be some moaning and groaning, but you may also hear some interesting and noteworthy points about the proposed changes. Just letting people talk about what’s bothering them is a positive first step.
Give them a source of reliable information
One problem with sweeping change in a company is gossip. People feel uncertain about changes they don’t like, or don’t think they’ll like, and negative talk proliferates. You can minimize this negativity from the start by giving your team a reliable source of information about what will change, when, how, and why. Perhaps you’re that source. Promise to meet regularly with them to discuss change as it occurs, or to notify everyone by memo—whatever works best for you and them. But make sure it’s something they can count on.
Protect comfort zones
This is your toughest job, because it must be done on an individual basis. You know your people. You’re in the trenches with them every day, knocking out code, working with users, and testing systems. You know how they feel; you know where their particular comfort zones lie. Some like being left alone. Others are “people persons.” Some are easily threatened. Others don’t care whom they report to as long as the work suits them. Take whatever steps you can to minimize the impact of change on an individual basis. Will this be challenging and time-consuming? Sure, but that’s why they pay you the big bucks.
Institute positive change yourself
It’s going to be a season of change, and you’re reactive, rather than proactive, in the big picture. But you can give your team a sense that they have some control in their work lives by instituting changes of your own, with their full participation.
For example, you might take this opportunity to rearrange your department’s work area. Make individual work areas bigger, if possible. Solicit everyone’s input in making your area more efficient, more ergonomic, and more appealing. If company policy permits, make your own work area more personally expressive, and make it clear that others can follow suit. The idea is to say to them that change is going to happen, but let’s make some of the changes what we want them to be. This initiates the period of shake-up in a way that gives your team a sense of more control, not less. In a time of environmental change, it can make them feel better about the environment, rather than intimidated by it.
Remember the big picture
This, too, shall pass. A day will come in the next few months when your way of operating will be different—presumably better—and your team’s performance will reach a new high as a result. You may be trusting senior management on this one, but there’s no point in second-guessing. You can be swept along, as many of your peers certainly will be, or you can be a motivating force. In the big picture, the motivator is better off, having cleared the way for improvements. That manager will not only have better performance from the team, but also more loyalty and trust.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.