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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Want to change your culture? Keep your eyes wide open

September 14, 2006
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Once I had the chance to create a mini work culture. I was to lead a small editorial team out of corporate cubicleland and set up shop in a small suite of offices nearby.

The winds of change seemed favorable.

HQ was 700 miles away, so we’d have freedom, independence to make many decisions on our own. Our small band of staffers — a “micro unit” in management parlance — knew each other, trusted each other. Interdependence was already established. Communication would be easy given our small numbers. And we all relished the chance to create our own unique work environment. We spent weeks deciding on the office layout (the fewer walls the better), choosing furniture and equipment, painting the place and personalizing it with posters and pictures.

These heady days lasted, oh, maybe four months. First, one of the team was lured to a new job at an agency, at almost double her salary. “How could I say no?” Then another teammate said she was leaving for the kind of job she always had wanted in education.

HQ a while later decided to allow employees to telecommute and work from home. Two more of our little band packed up for home office set-ups. By the time our lease ran out, I had the whole place to myself.

Hmmm… I thought, surveying the blank walls. You can have the right people with the right skills “on the bus,” as management guru Jim Collins says. Trust, empathy, interdependence, empowered decision-making, good communication, good relationships, and good working conditions — all those things can be in place. And still, it’s no sure bet a positive work culture will last.

70-percent strike-out rate

Collins states in his 2001 best-seller, Good to Great, that it’s generally accepted some 70 percent of significant organizational change efforts fail.

What happens?

If you do some research on the Web it’s not difficult to find management articles that explain why successful change-agents hit for about the same batting average as all-star baseball players — connecting roughly three out of every ten times “at bat.”

If you’re getting ready to step to the plate to take your best shot at changing your safety culture, review the following list. It’s a reality check of what makes organizational change so daunting. It helps to know what you’re up against. See if you’ve got your “bases covered.” Then take your best cuts at culture change.

Barriers to change

  1. Many executives are in a comfort zone, running the business according to their own pace, style and prejudices. It’s unnatural for many execs to change a lifetime of business habits to embrace and encourage change.
  2. Outside execs brought in to clean house and change the culture aren’t tied to old ways and old relationships. But what if they don’t stick around? A revolving door at the top of an organization keeps the whole enterprise spinning.
  3. Good leaders are hard to find. Especially if you’re trying to lure top talented execs to old, mature businesses. Take the whole distribution industry, which blossomed back in the Industrial Revolution. Management consultants Scott Benfield and Steve Griffith claim it’s difficult to substantially change distribution cultures today without advanced degrees and attractive salaries in the managerial disciplines. But only 3.76 percent of wholesale industry workers have master’s degrees (compared to the U.S. industry average of 8.33 percent.) And distribution executive pay lags the U.S. average by 30 percent to 40 percent.
  4. Senior leadership in general almost always perceives their organization as more competent and capable to absorb change than do lower level employees, according to Benfield and Griffith.
  5. Leadership perceived as out-of-touch — clueless — will drive employees at all levels of the organization into blocks of fearful, resentful and often resistant individuals.
  6. Too often organizations leap at panaceas — quick fixes — offered by the latest round of management gurus. Leaders lack patience, and rush headlong to “get better” without defining the current cultural deficiencies and the desired future state, say Benfield and Griffith.
  7. Communication that explains the reasons for change, the nature of changes to come, and the benefits of those changes for all concerned is often botched. Discussions about change may not be open, timely, honest or clear. If one-to-one conversations stumble here, imagine the difficulties organizations with thousands of employees have getting it right.
  8. Employees are very often shut out of participating in the change effort. They are not asked for their perceptions of the current culture. Their suggestions are not solicited. Leaders fear participation will open a Pandora’s Box of complaints and personal agendas.
  9. Money matters. Leaders can do many things right for a culture — get out and talk to people; ask questions; listen; offer compliments, encouragement and respect. But are they supporting employees in their pocketbook?

    According to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 70 percent of employees said compensation was the most important factor in their job satisfaction — more than relationships, positive feedback and empathetic leaders.

    There’s a connection between pay and how a culture performs. A 1979 NIOSH study of “Safety Program Practices in Record-Holding Plants” found: “Pay scales were generally quite high in relation to other (plants) in the surrounding community, and fringe benefits were typically quite good.”
  10. Change is messy and unpredictable, hard to control. Who knows where it will lead, how long it will take, and the ROI? All this uncertainty conflicts with management’s inherent desire for efficiency, execution, speed to market, increasing the stock price and decreasing risk, explains organization development expert John Nirenberg.


Why bother?

So why bother with culture change then? Just in terms of safety, many organizations can still make improvements. OSHA compliance alone won’t get you there. It’s onto the hard stuff, which is the soft stuff. It’s working with people — not machine guards. Understanding and shaping attitudes, behaviors, values and perceptions about safety. The benefits go beyond fewer injuries. You can build better working relationships, get excellent ideas from employees, increase efficiency and business performance. Just go into a culture change process with your eyes wide open.

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