Anyone who has ever attempted to lead change in an organization, regardless of its size and complexity, will attest that it’s not for the faint of heart. One simple attestation to this is the countless number of books and articles written on the topic.
While organizational change can be difficult, regardless of the circumstances, it can be particularly challenging to create change in organizations that have longstanding histories and deeply embedded cultural norms, beliefs, and assumptions. Organizations that are solidly grounded in legacy and that place significant value on an enviable history oftentimes have the most difficulty creating change. This is especially true when these organizations are attempting to create transformative change (completely disruptive) as opposed to evolutionary change (small slices of change over time).
Why is this?
Organizations with deeply engrained beliefs about how business should be conducted have likely developed these beliefs based on many years of success using those methods. In these situations, it in not difficult to see that asking people to do things different may generate levels of dissonance, anxiety, and discomfort that affecting disruptive change may present a rather significant challenge.
Any real or potential change creates the potential for people to lose power or control of their environment. This, not surprisingly, can create anxiety and resistance.
Asking people who have done things for a certain way for a very long time to do things differently can create anxiety. “I have mastered my job despite any frustrations I may have with process. If you expect me to do things differently, I may not know how to be successful.”
Employees having longer tenures in such organizations, can adopt deep personal and psychological connects to the legacy of their employer, making any suggestion of change an affront to their own identities. “Suggesting that we need to change means that I have been doing something wrong this whole time.”
Finally, in the absence of factual information, people tend to fill in the gaps and this is rarely helpful or a fully accurate representation of reality as it tends to be laden with peoples’ deep-rooted fears and anxieties about the situation.
What can you do to help facilitate change in these types of environments?
- Focus on little victories. In the face of seemingly overwhelming change, people can often become paralyzed. Transformational change takes time and requires alignment of many people. Find ways to create and acknowledge small steps along the way. Showcase examples of employees who are successfully exhibiting new behaviors and the impact that they are having on the organization.
- Provide ample opportunity to help employees develop and master new skills. In organizations with deeply rooted culture and business practices, employees, especially those with long tenures, have learned how to survive and thrive in that operating environment. Often, their professional identities are closely tied to their ability to thrive in such an environment. Asking people to do things different can be extremely difficult to process. “I know how to succeed now. If things change, will I still be successful?” Providing people ample opportunity to develop new skills and the psychological safety to fail and learn will go a long way in helping them to navigate the complex and nebulous transition period.
- Acknowledge that disruptive change is a process. It won’t happen overnight but it may need to happen more quickly than people are ready to adapt to it. Be patient and provide continuous feedback. As employees and leaders are practicing new skills and behaviors, find ways to provide ongoing and timely feedback will help increase their confidence and begin to provide a sense of stability. It will also help you identify those who may be unwilling or unable to successfully adapt.
- Include employees in the process. This takes effort and can sometimes feel like a nice-to-have but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Disruptive changes impact people differently. Actively including people in the change process allows you the ability to decrease the distance between people and factual information. It creates trust and transparency and helps to create lines of communication with other employees through informal networks.
- Create psychological safety and space for people to process the changes Providing opportunities for people to come together throughout the change process allows leaders to understand where their people are at in terms of processing through the transformation while providing additional opportunities to communicate factual information and to dispel rumors.
- Honor the past. In organizations that have deeply rooted cultures and subcultures, people have often done things a certain way for extended periods of time. Asking people to change the way they work, regardless of the obviously visible business reasons, can unintentionally send a message that what was done in the past was wrong. In order to minimize the unintentional slighting of the work people have done to this point, creating opportunities to honor the past in both word and deed can be extremely beneficial.
- Be courageous enough to have the difficult conversations and to make the tough decisions. It’s no epiphany that change is tough. The opportunity during change in organizations with deeply embedded cultures is that leaders must be prepared to negotiate challenging discussions, to respond to uncomfortable questions, and to make decisions that may test their leadership mettle.
- Be intentional about evolving your systems and processes to reinforce the new behaviors you expect and need to compete in the new operating environment. Evolving an organization’s systems to support and reinforce the new behaviors you will require is a necessary step in order to help ensure that behavior changes take root and solidify into the fabric of the organization moving forward.
In a world where technological advancements are causing massive disruption in every corner of our lives, those organizations that have long relied on operating in a certain way are faced with the overwhelming task to creating disruptive change. If they fail to adapt, or do so too slowly, they run the very real risk of becoming irrelevant. While it is widely accepted that organizational culture is a key aspect of performance, many leaders fail to clearly grasp how to sustainably evolve the cultures of their organizations with the speed and agility required to keep up with changing realities in the markets. One way to do this is to develop the agility muscles in the organization early so that when it is time to adapt to significant changes, it can be done in a more thoughtful and intentional manner.
About the author: Chris Cancialosi is a recognized expert in the field of leadership and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture. Chris effectively combines his operational field experience with his knowledge of organizational psychology to provide unique and practical solutions to today’s ever-changing business landscape.