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Compassion + communication = culture change

January 30, 2015

The following excerpt from a story by Alan Murray that was adapted in part from The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management makes some obvious points on how to implement and sustain organizational culture change.

“As a manager, you may have the power to change your organization’s policies with the stroke of a pen. And you may have the ability to hire, fire, promote and demote people with relatively little effort.

“But changing an entrenched culture is the toughest task you will face. To do so, you must win the hearts and minds of the people you work with, and that takes both cunning and persuasion.

“In their book Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne cite four hurdles that face a manager trying to institute broad change in an organization. The first is cognitive—people must have some understanding of why the change in strategy or in culture is needed. The second is limited resources—inevitably, changing an organization will require shifting resources away from some areas and towards others. The third hurdle is motivation—ultimately, workers have to want to make the change. And the final hurdle is institutional politics. They quote one manager who complains: ‘In our organization, you get shot down before you stand up.’”

Of course it’s easy to agree with the substance of this article that states change works when you enroll champions/influencers, construct a business case for the “harsh realities” of change, and reallocate resources to where they’re needed most to affect change.

But years of experience in helping our clients to implement change within many different organizations has shown us that the concepts Murray describes are necessary, although not sufficient in and of themselves to bring about a whole-scale culture change.

Why not? Because cultures are made up of people. And in order to change cultures, we have to acknowledge that people need to understand and embrace something before they can actually change. The “change” part of most initiatives I’ve seen is usually pretty well-thought-out. But, I’ve also seen some of the very same, well-thought-out change initiatives fail because management neglected to pay enough attention to the “transition” part of the equation.

So, in order to ensure a clean and smooth transition from one way of doing things to another—to actually effect real and lasting change—leaders of an organization need to aid in the transition to the new reality. The leadership of organizations that make successful transitions do these five things in addition to what Murray describes in his article:

1. They fully explain the purpose of the change.

2. They show real empathy for the impact that the change will have on the employees.

3. They recognize that employees experience loss when changes are implemented.

4. They help all employees overcome the perceived losses that come with even the smallest change.

5. And most importantly, when it comes to change and transitions, the mantra is to over-communicate. The initiatives that succeed in the long term are as focused on transitions (the internal reaction to change) as much as the actual change itself.

Change is a lot easier when your employees are fully on board with what you’re trying to do and are equipped to handle the normal human reactions that whole-scale change is guaranteed to bring about.

So let’s hear from you. What are you most afraid of when it comes to change and transition?

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