Culture change is getting caught up in culture war
‘Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run, There's still time to change the road you're on…’
Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven
Organizations arrive at the conclusion that ‘culture change’ is of interest in several ways. The impetus to change may come from various forms of diagnostic data, the perceptions of individual leaders with a sufficiently powerful mandate, or external pressures to change in some way.
In this post I will share some thoughts on a trade-off that needs to be made between conserving aspects of an organization’s culture while seeking to transform.
Culture is a slippery concept to pin down, whether we are talking about national or organizational culture.
Some psychologists view culture as analogous to personality - the collective patterns of behaviour that reflect underlying narratives, beliefs, and assumptions. Culture reflects the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Others view culture as arising out of discourse, which tends to focus on conversations that happen around individuals.
What is clear is that many organizations are currently engaging in various attempts at changing, or transforming organizational culture. This is happening partly in the context of COVID-19, and a desired acceleration towards the ‘future of work’, and partly in the context of a very strong focus, in many UK and US businesses, on diversity and inclusion. Digitalization remains, ofcourse, an overarching theme.
Culture change is often initiated by a new leader, with a fresh perspective and, maybe even at times, a negative perspective on the existing culture.
We have all seen many examples of leaders in several different organisations, turning up and starting every other sentence with: ‘at xyxxxx [their previous organisation] we did yyyyyyy [a process, or specific way of doing things] by xxxxxxx [a better way than the way whatever it is, is done in the new organisation]’ - new, externally recruited bosses acting in ways that are openly disparaging towards long-incumbent staff. There are times where this could be justified – for example, if a team were chronically under-performing and the desired business outcome was for some of them to exit voluntarily. Some team members may appreciate the new leader’s powerful insights into better ways of working. Some may gratefully accept the developmental opportunity represented by working with a new leader with great credentials and relevant knowledge.
Being openly critical of a culture is a tactic to be used with caution – especially if you know that you may be viewed as an outsider. It requires skill to challenge cultural norms and reveal blind spots. Culture engenders deep protectiveness. There is an incredibly powerful and unsettling political and cultural backlash against diversity and inclusion efforts in Europe and the US. The backlash is really to be expected. Resistance meets counter-resistance, which creates more resistance. And so, it continues.
Corporate ‘D&I’ practice in the West is at risk right now of becoming increasingly associated with ‘culture war’, and an activist mindset, rather than culture change, and a client-centric mindset. This does make sense on one level, because the personal and professional are political. On another level, any behaviour that is reactive, is unlikely to be intentional, productive, or sustainable in the long-run, even if it is entirely justified and well intended.
Organizational cultures have taken years, often decades, to build up around specific ideas, places, memories of events, people, artefacts, and espoused values. What an organization forgets is also possibly as important than the things which are remembered – as in a nation. Change can be held back if it is not informed, at the very least, by awareness and sensitivity to how things are now, to what is happening in the here-and-now, and underlying dynamics.
For change agents, coaches, or psychologists engaging in culture change, challenging peoples’ deeply held beliefs about who they are or what they represent also requires some degree of curiosity and a willingness to explore, to listen. The legendary Edgar Schein advises us to reserve judgement and intervention until we have engaged in adequate observation, and allowed ourselves to acknowledge our own reactions to a situation. This is Schein's classic process consultation cycle (O-R-J-I).
Pure process consultation or appreciation of a culture is incredibly difficult if what you are challenging is a social injustice within a culture, or an industry, which you as a practitioner have experienced yourself. But somehow, when trying to build inclusive cultures, or to foster more integrity in a business, there might be a need to unearth and then shine a light on a few positive stories. Unmitigated shame or guilt are unlikely to be very useful emotions in an organizational change context, except in relation to behaviour which clearly justifies disciplinary or legal action.
The historical and cultural context of a company is like that of a person; it creates a story, which may reflect internalized stereotypes to an extent, but still feels unique, and precious to the individual. At times, given the psychological need that many people are likely to have for some sense of safety, and continuity, the desire to conserve some aspects of a culture might be worth tuning into. It can be risky to dismiss this instinct as mere ‘resistance’.
Rob Farrands, a Gestalt coach, puts this point across beautifully in a book chapter on ‘Breakdown and Possibility in Managerial Work’. He suggests that coaches can be culpable in poorly conceived change efforts by becoming overly confluent, or colluding with those who wish to bring about a change: ‘…coaching needs to catch hold of something already present in the manager’s [and cultural] DNA – the need to commit and conserve, and to embody this in grounded coaching that aims at renewing our organisations as places of deep purpose.’
Farrands describes a ‘gestalt’ way of thinking about change. It may be possible to work with, not against, the grain of culture, while reshaping it. Working with people spontaneously to expose the truth of a situation, in a compassionate and responsive way can sometimes work better than working to a fixed agenda, in a way that can come across as judgmental. Many of us might benefit from asking ourselves how we as practitioners might ‘catch hold of something already present’ to bring about change.
How might we renew organizations as ‘places of deep purpose’ and in doing so, increase fairness, diversity and inclusion in culture?
What do you think could be conserved in the culture of your organization, or an organization you work with, while it seeks to change?
See also –
Farrands, R. (2016). Breakdown and possibility in managerial work. In T. Francis & M. Parlett (Eds.), Contact and Context: New directions in Gestalt coaching. London, UK: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose