If we want positive cultural change in our organisation, we’ll need more than a simple redesign of surface artefacts. More even than challenging espoused beliefs and values. We must courageously explore the basic underlying assumptions that determine behaviour, perception, thoughts, and feelings.
Just as the nick in the sapling remains with the tree into maturity, the founder’s influence remains embedded in an organisation’s culture throughout its life. However, the way an organisation, during its founding and early growth, establishes internal coherence and adapts to its markets is unlikely to serve its midlife, maturity, decline and rejuvenation.
Ed Schein, Emeritus Professor at MIT, identified two anxieties at play when thinking about organisational change—the anxiety of learning and the anxiety of survival. Any change requires new knowledge; and, by definition, that means learning afresh. However, learning afresh means having to confess ignorance. And with that confession comes the fear that the new learning will demonstrate, at least temporarily, a level of incompetence. Along with the loss of mastery that arises as we abandon the old way in favour of the new, we experience fear that we could lose the power and status associated with our current way of doing things.
Further, what if we think we’ll be punished for our incompetence? Learning always demands a temporary fall in productivity as we gain mastery in the new ways of working. Will we be given the necessary time and instruction required to gain competence in the latest methods and tools? We also need to understand that often we wrap our identity into our jobs and the relationships they foster. Suppose the change we contemplate is structural in its nature. We might find we become so alienated from our group or the organisation at large that we either live in misery or feel compelled to leave.
“Learning always demands a temporary fall in productivity as we gain mastery in the new ways of working”
We are not automatons and are endowed by our creator with free will. Along with free will comes its flip side—free won’t—more typically called ‘resistance to change’. This is a rational response to the anxieties of learning and can take the form of denial, scapegoating or manoeuvring. When we deny, we convince ourselves that things aren’t as bad as we’re told and that the change can therefore be avoided. Scapegoating makes the case that our function or department is not the cause of underperformance and that it is others who need to change. Manoeuvring is the behaviour we adopt when we seek out special compensation for our engagement in the change. We need belaboured convincing that it’s in our interest for the change to happen, and undue persuasion that it’s in the long-term interest of the organisation at large.
So how do we overcome this real anxiety of learning and resistance to change? The big idea is to create psychological safety. In recent years, Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School has popularised the term. But it’s been around a long time. In his book, Leadership & Culture, Schein incorporates the concept in eight mutually reinforcing activities, which I quote below:
1. A compelling positive vision: The targets of change must believe that the organisation will be better off if they learn the new way of thinking and working. Such a vision must be articulated and widely held by senior management and must spell out in clear behavioural terms what ‘the new way of working’ will be. It must also be recognised that this new way of working is non-negotiable.
2. Formal training: If the new way of working requires new knowledge and skill, members must be provided with the necessary formal and informal training. For example, if the new way of working requires teamwork, then formal training on team building and maintenance must be provided. This is especially relevant in multicultural groups.
3. Involvement of the learner: If the formal training is to take hold, the learners must have a sense that they can manage their own informal learning process. Each learner will learn in a slightly different way, so it is essential to involve learners in designing their own optimal learning process. The goals of learning are non-negotiable, but the method of learning can be highly individualised.
4. Informal training of relevant ‘family’ groups, and teams: Because cultural assumptions are embedded in groups, informal training and practice must be provided to whole groups so that new norms and new assumptions can be jointly built. Learners should not feel like deviants if they decide to engage in the new learning.
5. Practice fields, coaches, and feedback: Learners cannot learn something fundamentally new if they don’t have the time, the resources, the coaching, and valid feedback on how they are doing. Practice fields are particularly important so that learners can make mistakes without disrupting the organisation.
6. Positive role models: The new way of thinking and behaving may be so different from what learners are used to that they may need to be able to see what it looks like before they can imagine themselves doing it. They must be able to see the new behaviour and attitudes in others with whom they can identify.
7. Support groups in which learning problems can be aired and discussed: Learners need to be able to talk about their frustrations and difficulties in learning with others who are experiencing similar difficulties so that they can support each other and jointly learn new ways of dealing with the difficulties.
8. Systems and structures that are consistent with the new way of thinking and working: For example, if the goal of the change program is to learn how to be more of a team player, the reward system must be group-oriented, the discipline system must punish individually aggressive selfish behaviour, and the organisational structures must make it possible to work as a team.
These activities are underpinned by his five principles, each of which should make us sit up and pay attention:
Principle 1: Survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety.
Principle 2: Learning anxiety must be reduced rather than increasing survival anxiety.
Principle 3: The change goal must be defined concretely in terms of the specific problem you are trying to fix, not as ‘culture change’.
Principle 4: Old cultural elements can be destroyed by eliminating the people who ‘carry’ those elements, but new cultural elements can only be learned if the new behaviour leads to success and satisfaction.
Principle 5: Cultural change is always transformative change that requires a period of unlearning that is psychologically painful.
Principle 1 tells us that, usually, learning takes place when survival anxiety exceeds learning anxiety. In other words, I will not learn if something I really value, such as my job, or position in the hierarchy, is not at stake. But, in accordance with principle 2, rather than amp up the survival anxiety, the more productive way to go is to decrease the anxiety associated with learning. For example, embody the idea that failure is a necessary condition of learning and that we should ‘fail often to succeed sooner’. Could we even go so far as to embrace our fondest memories of learning as a child and make it playful?
Principle 3 is fundamental. If we bring in the culture change consultants to tell our teams that we are embarking on an initiative to change our culture, then, after the eyes have rolled, the teams will know that the initiative is doomed. Culture doesn’t sit outside of our striving to bring greater integration to how we work together to solve the problems of adapting to our market. We need to explicitly articulate our goal and frame the initiative in terms that show how the intervention is going to get us closer to its accomplishment.
“All change requires unlearning as well as learning”
Principle 4 means we cannot be afraid to remove people who are unwilling to contribute to the learning. Notwithstanding that all should be given a fair go, the sooner these toxic elements are removed, the less the risk that their negative assessments will infuse the rest of the change team in cynical resistance to change. The effect is often salutary, as it sends a message about the mandate for change. To achieve enduring success though, the change team need to see the success from their new ways of working and reap the satisfaction that comes from doing good work well.
Principle 5 is a reminder that all change requires unlearning as well as learning. We come to understand that our mental models were flawed and that, by embracing change, the future is not going to be what we had hitherto invested so much of our energy in imagining. We need to let go of our old selves to allow the new ones to enter the arena. Thus, the first activity when creating transformative change is to create a compelling and aligning vision. For, as Nietzsche put it: ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’.
To close, let’s see what Schein has to say about what a learning culture could look like:
2.Commitment to learning to learn
3.Positive assumptions about human nature (Theory Y)
4.Belief that the environment can be managed
5.Commitment to truth through pragmatism and inquiry
6.Positive orientation toward the future
7.Commitment to full and open task-relevant communication
8.Commitment to cultural diversity
9.Commitment to systemic thinking
10.Belief that cultural analysis is a valid set of lenses for understanding and improving the world.
Changing culture is not easy, but neither is it impossible. As per one of our enduring mantras, ‘to change the way you work, you have to change the way you work’. But perhaps we’ll give the final words of our exploration of culture to Deming: ‘survival is not mandatory’.
The change to using Theory of Constraints (TOC) as an underlying operating system is both profound and exhilarating. We’ve developed the Systems Thinker Course to bring the ideas into your organisation.
[Background image: Guy walking the tightrope., on Shutterstock]
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