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Many organizations have become attuned to the need for formalized change management, which helps support enterprises facing inflection points, such as restructurings, mergers, divestitures and changes in ownership. Such companies often engage experts who redefine and redeploy organizational models and business processes to smooth the required transitions and maximize the value of significant strategic and/or tactical changes.
Unfortunately, most practitioners don’t usually consider workplace culture’s impact on change management success. This fundamentally limits the work’s potential as the cultural norms that pervade every workplace can significantly inhibit needed change management initiatives.
A change management primer
Change management is built around the idea that people and organizations require help adapting to new approaches, models and technologies as required by triggering events. The field is based on our modern-day understanding that C-suites can’t simply decide to make a significant adjustment and expect their employees to just follow along.
To provide the help that organizations need, change management practitioners design systematic approaches for dealing with necessary transitions or transformations. They create formalized processes for planning, testing, communicating, scheduling and — ultimately — implementing the necessary changes. They also document the processes and evaluate their short-term effects.
While intended to be comprehensive, these approaches often bypass any assessments, analyses or planning tied to how changes underway might be perceived as threatening or run counter to existing workplace norms. Failure to bridge this gap can result in ineffective change management and, bigger picture, diminish morale and productivity, and drive turnover.
What happens when change management neglects culture
As an example, consider a behavioral health provider that has accepted investment from a private equity sponsor and is implementing a change management process to help drive the adjustments required to enhance the value of the organization. Like many mission-driven organizations, the provider is staffed by service-minded individuals whose first priorities revolve around providing care.
Upon learning of the transformation underway, the team members begin to feel an immediate sense of unease. They’ve heard that private equity prioritizes profits over patients and see the advancing changes as validating their perceptions. They read memos full of business phrases that reinforce the feeling that the organization has embarked on a very different direction. Ongoing requests by change management consultants make it more challenging for them to meet the needs of their patients.
Ultimately, the most experienced, respected team members decide the best thing to do is leave.
Avoiding cultural pitfalls in change management
As an essential, early and repeated element of any change management effort, organizational leaders would be wise to first clarify the intentions behind the transformation — an indication of their cultural objectives. For the behavioral health provider, it could be that the infusion of capital will allow them to serve more patients as part of their mission-driven ethos. It could also be that the organization is evolving its mission, a potential challenge for its people that experts can help mitigate — for example, providing team members with alternative ways of “living their values.”
Such exercises should inform a cadence of professional communications to employees capturing leaders’ thinking, making it relevant to individual employee groups. The goal is to bring team members along on the transformation journey, helping them embrace not just the changes but the potential accompanying cultural shifts.
Maximizing communications by tapping into essential human needs
Given the vital importance of these communications, it’s vital that leaders have a full grasp of not just the strategy behind them, but also the essential human needs that their people will experience as they internalize the change and process them within the workplace’s cultural context. This will help inform the tone required in written communications and all near-term interactions.
Such needs include:
Information: Details about the changes underway will allow people to process and personalize the transformation, considering how it might impact them. Such information should include leaders’ insights on the “why” behind the changes underway as well as recommendations on how to work through them and what to do once the initiative is complete.
Empathy: Imagining or trying to deeply understand what it’s like to experience organizational change from the employee’s perspective will help leaders grasp its inherent challenges and best overcome them. They would be wise to publicly acknowledge the difficulty of such changes even as they cast a vision for the future.
Ideas: Throughout an organization’s change management journey, leaders should provide employees with ideas for how to “digest” the change underway, helping them understand what is expected of them and when. This clarification will serve as guideposts for individuals and teams who might be feeling adrift.
Time: Just as leaders took time to consider the change in question before they adopted it, people need time to wrestle, question, process and get aligned with the change being thrust upon them. Those who are given this room to “catch up” with leadership will be most responsive to change management.
The savviest organizations go a step beyond professional communications. They evaluate and map out the existing and potential future culture, designing and implementing work streams that facilitate a transition from one culture to another and “pull” new cultural elements through every facet of the company.
When handled in this thoughtful, intentional manner, organizational cultures no longer impede but serve to accelerate change management and drive results across enterprises.