Top Reasons Cultural Transformations Fail

Free Health and Safety WebcastOur Linked 2 Leadership group on LinkedIn (connect with me at http://ca.linkedin.com/in/jimclemmer) is having a lively and insightful discussion on the question, “What are the top reasons why cultural transformations fail?” Since the failure rate of organizational change efforts like health and safety, quality, productivity, innovation, customer service, morale/engagement, teamwork, or public sector renewal is around 70%, this is a critical question. The discussion is timely since I am currently pulling together research on Leadership and Culture Development for Higher Health and Safety for our (no charge) webcast on May 23.

There are a few dozen thoughtful observations and shared experiences getting at the root causes of the problem. Very rightfully a number of comments focus on managers’ leadership behaviors:

  • “Culture was imposed rather than engaging a critical mass in building the new culture.”
  • “Those calling for a cultural change do not really, really understand the culture in the first place. Nor do they understand their part in perpetuating the existing culture.”
  • “‚Ķstudies show that upper management is only aware of about 4% of all the problems in the workplace while those on the bottom rung are aware of 100%.”
  • “A huge factor is engaging managers and frontline workers before changes are implemented. The frontlines know what is working and what isn’t; get their perspective and making them a part of the change.”
  • “Culture is most strongly influenced by the behavior of the people at the top — if their behavior is not in line with the new culture, it will never succeed.”
  • “‚Ķorganizations want the benefits of culture change without the pain of behavioral change.”
  • “If top management wants a highly motivated, highly committed, fully engaged, values-based workforce capable of beating their competition and having very high morale, they need to meet the five basic needs of their people; to be heard, respected, competent, autonomous, and having an overriding sense of purpose.”
  • “It is fairly common to hear leaders talk about their population of employees as change resistant. Why not turn the conversation back around to focus on them and ask, ‘What is it that you, as leaders, have failed to communicate to your organization that would help them understand and feel good about whatever is next?’”

We strongly agree with this focus on leadership behavior. “Leadership Lip Service: Behaviors Undefined and Underdeveloped” is the first and most critical of the Fatal Five Failure Factors our research uncovered in putting together our Leading a Peak Performance Culture webcast summarizing our workshops, management team retreats, and consulting services on this topic.

But the Linked 2 Leadership discussion is lopsided and incomplete. It’s only focusing on the “soft skills” or leadership side of culture change. Our experience is BOTH leadership and management are needed. It isn’t either/or. We often see organizations focus too heavily on one or the other and become part of that 70% failure rate for these efforts.

Focusing on the “soft” side of culture, such as purposeful connections to the heart, an energizing vision, engaging through core values, or strengthening leadership behaviors are vital. But if they are not backed up by realigning operational processes and shifting key support systems you end up with highly motivated people who come to feel manipulated and powerless against “the bureaucracy.”

It’s in the operating/horizontal processes and support systems (IT, measurements, org structure and HR policies like compensation, and what gets people hired, fired, and promoted) that senior management’s true values of trust, teamwork, engagement, customer focus, safety, and other espoused values become rhetoric or reality.

What are your perspectives and experiences? Please join the discussion and add your comments to the bottom of this post.

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