To effectively implement change in a company, Change Practitioners must keep culture in mind. The cultural traits of a company will determine the most effective tactics and strategy; performing a cultural assessment is a task that should not be overlooked.

Let’s examine three cultural traits that should be considered when implementing change: Performance Orientation, Assertiveness and Power Distance.

Performance Orientation

How this shows-up: Performance Orientation is the extent to which an organization keenly focuses on innovation and on excellence, and is dedicated to high standards.

High performance cultures value Training & Development. They invest in their employees. Managers are very good at giving feedback, and they communicate directly: “employees will review the new software job aids within the next three days.”

If you’re working with a high-performing organization, effective key messaging could include how the change will help the company to achieve excellence, and how it enhances their high standards: “this realignment will help our company to continue to provide excellent service to our valued customers, and will enable us to hold our place as #1 provider in the industry.”

Over the past 15 years, I’ve never worked with a company that has admitted that they are a low performing culture, even when they actually were. Low performance cultures communicate more indirectly and subtly: “we recommend that you take a few moments to review the new job aids for this software so that you can begin to use it.”

Low-performance oriented organizations are polite and considerate above all else. Direct feedback is seen as judgmental and is disconcerting to employees. Business results may be affected by this.

Change practitioners should be mindful of the culture's performance orientation when conducting stakeholder assessments. In low-performance oriented organizations, you may need to probe a bit more to adequately determine needs and change impacts. Before crafting written communications, be sure to review newsletters, emails and websites to get a feel for tone and level of directness.

Assertiveness

How this shows up: Assertiveness is the degree to which members are assertive, confrontational and aggressive with others.

High assertiveness cultures are typically competitive. They value success and progress. You will see this throughout the company, on every level. The competition may be very friendly; it may be formal or informal. High assertiveness organizations expect employees to take the initiative and stand up for themselves to get what they need.

An effective tactic for making change stick may be to encourage friendly competition among teams to complete actions in support of the change.
Employees in high assertiveness cultures tend to be vocal about what they need in order to be successful. As a change practitioner, this cultural trait can be very helpful in moving change forward. An effective tactic for making change stick may be to encourage friendly competition among teams to complete actions in support of the change.

Low assertiveness manifests by the organization valuing warm, friendly relationships. Sounds great, right? Problems can arise when "saving face" is valued over getting the message across.

When broadly communicating challenges and problems, the change practitioner should communicate in a way that is in-line with the assertiveness of the culture. Carefully observe how others behave in meetings and take note of norms that you should follow. For example, if a KPI hasn’t been met due to the actions or inaction of a particular team or group, you may want to wait until after the meeting to discuss details privately if you're in a low assertiveness culture. Also, relationships are vital to success here, so extra care should be taken to foster good relationships and trust throughout the organization.

Power Distance

How this shows up: Power Distance is the degree to which the organization views the distribution of power throughout its organizational structure.

In high power cultures, lower-level employees tend to defer to higher level employees. This trait manifests in a top-down leadership style. As a Change Practitioner who is new to the organization, you will become aware of a clear pecking order very quickly.

This is very important to consider when selecting employees to serve as champions for your change effort. To support high power cultures, you will want to show that leadership is on-board with the change. In addition, you’ll also want to create open lines of communication with employees. Setting-up a process to collect feedback or questions from employees via a survey link works very well in this type of culture. The information that you collect will enable you to get an accurate idea of how well the change is taking hold.

Conversely, in low power cultures, employees are more empowered at all levels of the organization and they are comfortable with and willing to make decisions. They will vocalize concerns and suggestions, You will see better communication flow throughout the organization. Lower-level employees will tend to more willingly and proactively share information, thoughts and opinions with leaders. In low power cultures. leaders are aware of what is really happening in their organizations and this is very helpful to successfully implement change.

 

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The saying "culture eats strategy for breakfast" rings true (If you'd like to learn more about what you should read by Peter Drucker, click here). Leaders implementing change can have the most sophisticated, thorough strategy ever developed, but if that strategy doesn't take culture into consideration, it is destined to fail.

Change practitioners should avoid the urge to take a broiler-plate approach to implementing a change strategy - what worked in one company won't necessarily work in your next company! Take some time at the start of your project to assess culture, and as you move through your change effort, to learn more about how employees behave when no one is watching. Be willing to pivot and make adjustments to your strategy and tactics where needed.

What other cultural traits do you pay attention to when implementing change? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Here are additional references to learn more about culture:

https://hbr.org/2012/04/in-asia-power-gets-in-the-way

https://blog.prosci.com/culture-and-change-management-the-water-we-swim-in

https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-culture-factor