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August 03, 2016
When culture change fails, look in the mirror
By: Diana Barea

Moving to new ways of working which dial up collaboration, innovation, and cost-conscious behaviors to fuel growth—often defined as digital transformations—are inherently tricky. That's not only because of the extensive changes required in technology and work processes. In fact, I have seen far too many digital initiatives fail because of another reason: pushback from employees who resist the desired changes to the corporate culture. In many cases, the fundamental cause for that pushback often lies elsewhere in the organization—in the C-suite. Let me explain.

Many CEOs and other senior execs mistakenly believe that change initiatives need to be driven from the top. Our research shows otherwise. In fact, we have found that driving change too extensively from the C-suite can actually be highly counterproductive. The most successful change initiatives occur when all employees are actively involved, especially the team leaders and middle managers. Remember that people will be more likely to buy into a cultural transformation if they helped shape those changes. Simply put, the cultural changes must have employee “fingerprints” on them. One effective mechanism for accomplishing that is crowdsourcing. When the online retailer Zappos, for example, was trying to define its corporate culture, CEO Tony Hsieh asked for input from all employees. The company then came up with a set of values, and asked everyone to change one thing about Zappos’ policies or processes to align them better with the new set of values—putting the values into action immediately.

Top-down approaches can also be problematic for another reason. In my experience, I have found that digital transformations typically require a more flexible, purpose-driven and flat-hierarchy work environment. Unfortunately, those kinds of culture changes often require top execs to move away from, if not completely abandon, the very command-and-control behaviors that might have made them successful in the past. Unless senior execs are able to make those changes they won’t be able to lead by doing, and the result will be that all their talk about new values and behaviors will become nothing more than “corporate wallpaper.” So, what to do?

I have found that peer coaching and peer-to-peer learning can be very effective in helping leaders to adopt new behaviors. The objective is to provide a safe environment, in which execs can share their difficulties and best practices for overcoming those obstacles. Reverse mentoring can also be a very effective practice when the desired skills and behaviors are more commonly found in more junior employees or those with a millennial mindset.

Leading the workforce of the future will require new employee mindsets and behaviors. Unfortunately, many organizations fall short when implementing culture changes, but it doesn’t have to be that way if executives are prepared for the leadership challenges and the new rules for culture change. Indeed, overcoming those challenges can make all the difference between digital transformations that fail and those that succeed.

Learn more: Watch Diana Barea, managing director, discuss culture change and how it can support your business strategy on The Business Debate.

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