Safety Culture / Columns / Positive Cultures

POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: When the choice is to change or die

January 4, 2011
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Your organization has a distinctive personality, commonly called its corporate culture. Just like an individual’s personality, that set of attributes makes a big difference in how your company functions. It influences the kinds of companies it could partner with. And it is not easy to change.
 

An unhappy marriage

The concept of corporate culture became especially prominent in the 1970’s and 1980’s. When deregulation of various industries triggered rampant “merger mania” within many of those industries, organizational researchers noted that a surprisingly large number of mergers and acquisitions failed to realize their potential. After all the due diligence was done, and the projected financial performance of the new entity was identified, the results were often much less than envisioned.

As researchers began to dig into the reasons why so many mergers and acquisitions failed or at least underperformed, a common denominator became starkly visible. In many cases the root cause was simply the clash of cultures - corporate personality conflicts, if you will. It was not that the legal and financial guys didn’t do their homework, or that customer preferences and the market-demand for the company’s products and services suddenly shifted. It wasn’t only employee fear and uncertainty, resentment and resistance (usually on the part of acquired or junior partner), or anxiety (on the part of both - with folks wondering, “am I in a duplicated and possibly soon to be eliminated function?”). Beyond those understandable morale-killing qualms, there were often “old culture vs. new culture” issues. If the distinctive corporate cultures of the two partners (so-called) mismatched, the marriage would probably not be a long and happy one. Researchers coined the term “merger syndrome” to capture the malaise that settled over many such attempted unions.
 

When two companies merge, their cultures are not always compatible.

Culture clash

I experienced culture clash first-hand when a small organization development (OD) consulting firm that I worked closely with many years ago was acquired by a larger consulting firm that provided a different array of services. The work of the two groups was similar, and the acquisition broadened the offering of the acquiring partner, but the personalities of the two entities were vastly different. The culture of the larger/acquiring firm was highly structured and formal, with lots of documented rules and procedures, whereas the culture of the smaller/acquired firm was highly flexible and adaptable, and very informal.

After the union was consummated, members of the acquired group were bemused when they were given VP titles specific to their seniority and credentialing (assistant, associate, senior, executive, etc.) to mesh them in with the existing hierarchy of the parent company. They were less charmed when they were given their new timesheets (they had none before), which had to be filled out with a complex work-type-code, in 15-min. increments, and filed on a daily basis. Several simply ignored them, until they learned that they would not be paid until complete and accurate timesheets were turned in for the pay period. Ultimately, the acquisition failed, and after a brief and stormy relationship, the dominant partner was out of the OD consulting business. I would have a hard time finding any reason why two thriving entities, both with good and strong cultures, would fail in their marriage, other than the obvious and visible clash of those cultures.
 

Can culture be changed?

Now, not all corporate cultures are “good and strong”. Some are dysfunctional. They have characteristics that have a negative impact on their employees, and which don’t “fit” the demands of their market. For example, what if a company is characteristically cautious and slow to make a decision, and does not reward innovative risk-taking, while the market is moving fast and increasingly rewarding agility? What if the choice is to change or die?

There is serious debate within the literature as to whether and to what extent organizational culture can be explicitly changed, parallel to the debate within psychology about the changeability of individual personality. From the “pure” anthropological perspective, cultures are “discovered”, not manipulated. Some OD experts have taken the same tack, namely that organizational culture is simply the summary statement of all the cultural characteristics of the organization - it is arrived at inductively, and it just is.
 

 

Return to the analogy with individual personality. It is very difficult, I will grant, to fundamentally change a strong, central personality trait. Strong introverts are probably not going to be converted to strong extraverts by any means. But the ever-changing circumstances of life usually require some flexibility and adaptability in our approach, if we are to be successful and remain so. Most introverts just have to be expressive, action-oriented and social in some situations in order to survive and thrive. There actually are successful, introverted sales reps! I believe that the same is true of organizations and their distinctive personalities. Why would an organization which finds itself a misfit with the requirements of its market, in competition with others that possess a more adaptive culture that is “working”, simply accept that it is what it is? Indeed consultants are often brought in for the very purpose of helping to rescue just such organizations. And if they are to survive and have the chance to thrive, organizations with dysfunctional/misfit cultures must necessarily change, and not just surface elements of their culture.

The most effective folks in the safety arena aim at creating and sustaining a culture that embeds a total commitment to workplace safety as a core value of the culture, shared and acted upon by all - a “Positive Safety Culture”, to quote the title of this series. If the personality of their organization does not now include such a visible, systemic commitment to safe work, the most effective safety professionals aim to drive just such a positive change, challenging and changing the existing culture.

Culture change, like personality change, is not easy. It is especially difficult if the change involves deep, long-held attributes. But durable success in a changing environment requires flexibility and adaptability, openness to change. Even major, fundamental change is possible, and indeed essential to survival, if the current culture no longer “works”.

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