5 Common Pitfalls of Incorporating Culture & Change Management—And How to Avoid Them
By Stephanie Monge-Sherman
There’s pivotal interplay between company culture and the overall success of a company. From owners of small businesses to CEOs of large corporations, this fact is recognized, embraced and leveraged to strengthen a company’s infrastructure. In fact, many people consider company culture to be the factor that determines whether a company falters or thrives. But you don’t have to believe that company culture is solely critical to a company’s success to acknowledge that employee engagement, support, and happiness are incredibly important.
The idea that culture can actually lead change management is a hot topic among both company culture and change management experts--and the discussion is much more controversial. Among supporters, the theory is that a company’s culture can influence or drive change management. The pitfall of this belief is that culture-driven change management may not only derail change management but also cause lasting harm to a company’s hard-won culture.
While there’s no denying that culture and change management are closely related and can strongly affect each other, the misconception that one causes the other or that one is always harmful to the other is just that: a misconception. The truth is that a work culture can affect change both negatively and positively, so it’s important to include assessing a company culture, in the change management initiative. Culture change won’t completely replace the change management process, but it certainly can enable and support it.
Evidence shows that companies that have succeeded in intertwining the two concepts are those that managed change effectively to weather turbulence (Kotter, 2002). This article dives into culture and change management, and how to be successful at supporting both for positive outcomes for your company.
1. Fixing One Doesn’t Fix the Other
One common pitfall is initially assuming that culture change and change management are one and the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth: culture influences change, and change can influence the culture, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily always intertwined and assuming they are can be a mistake. Leaving the success of your change management plans to chance by relying only on culture can be a costly and damaging error.
It’s also a common mistake to assume that fixing one fixes the other. While the two do influence each other, changing the culture at a company and implementing change management strategies often require quite different tactics and a completely different pace. In fact, launching both at the same time can be more than a little confusing and overwhelming (more on this in point five). However, it can greatly benefit your change management strategy to incorporate the current culture and culture shifts, rather than tackling change management without the benefits of culture. It’s a known fact that system-wide change has a tendency to go awry, often due to deeper organizational issues or a failure to recognize the wider implications of change (Parish, Cadwallader & Busch, 2008) which can include company culture, so factoring in both can increase your chances of success.
2. Take Culture into Account Early
One way to avoid the pitfall of not including culture in your change management strategy is to have a cultural assessment conducted by either internal or external resources on your organization. To be successful as successful as possible, make this an early step in your change management process. The reason for this is that it allows you to get a big picture, clear view of the current culture before you make any permanent decisions, and it allows you a chance to correct any potential issues before they derail your change management strategy.
This cultural assessment is more important than you might think for implementing change within an organization. First, it gives you an understanding of the degree to which employees are willing to accept change. Second, it helps your organization understand the root of the issues that are standing in the way of performance, which can affect the perception of success of any change management efforts. In fact, if you want your change management initiative to succeed, factoring in your company culture is critical; the least successful change initiatives generally don’t consider culture, while the most successful tend to use culture to support them (Wilder, 2014). In this way, you’re figuring out from the get-go how one will affect that other and finding any hazards before they have a chance to occur.
3. Competing Values Make Change Difficult
A company’s culture often refers to the deeply embedded values of an organization, and this is important because change isn’t easy where there are different values at play. Companies must understand the values that exist, and then move towards values that instead support the change management outcome (if the two are competing). If employees and leadership are at odds and have different goals and practices, change management initiatives can’t possibly succeed.
To avoid this, it’s important to hone in on the existing values and then shift them to where they need to be in order to have support for change management tactics. After all, organizational improvements are actually unlikely without culture change early in the process (Cameron & Quinn, 2006). This may involve an entire culture shift (which is no easy feat), but it’s better to gauge beforehand how likely your change management goals are to succeed—if at all.
4. Culture Dictates Speed and Depth of Change Possible
Another common pitfall of incorporating culture and change management is thinking that any type or speed of change is possible. In fact, the type of culture an organization has directly impacts how much change can take place in an organization and how quickly it can happen. Aggressive change management tactics will hit major roadblocks if the employees aren’t on board or if their values aren’t aligned with leaderships’. A negative culture will likely respond negatively to change, while a positive culture will more likely support and enable change mandated by leadership. In fact, employees are more likely to embrace change if the culture is aligned with the goals of the company or the goals of change management (Schein, 1999).
Furthermore, if culture changes are found to be mandatory in order to introduce change, it’s important to recognize the timeline of that. Implementing culture shifts is tricky enough without a hard deadline, so foreseeing this difficulty and anticipating delays are helpful to keep your change management tactics on track and successful.
5. Simultaneous Culture and Change Management Launches
Once you recognize that aligning culture and change management strategies is key to success, it can sometimes leave companies in a tight spot. After all, culture overhaul can take years to accomplish, it’s elusive, and it’s hard to know exactly when it’s truly changed to the necessary degree. Sometimes, companies just simply aren’t in a financial or leadership place to revamp their culture.
But one of the most common pitfalls of incorporating culture and change management is initiating change management before the company culture has been remedied enough for the changes to be successful. But oftentimes, implementing change management tactics can’t wait. Companies rely on change to survive, especially in market downturns, and so waiting for the culture to catch up isn’t always a luxury they have. A complex but effective way to avoid this pitfall is to build certain structural initiatives into your change management strategy that incentivize employees to support and embrace your change plans and that simultaneously help shift the culture too. A few ways you can do this are: be clear and transparent about the change, explain the “why” behind the change, listen and actually use feedback from employees, provide training, and publicly reward employees that accept and adopt the change.
These strategic initiatives can help you avoid the common pitfall of culture not being fully ready for change management implementation. It’s a lot to undertake, but it can simultaneously ensure your change plans are successful while also overhauling your company culture, which will also better set up your company for future change management plans. The bottom line is this: launching change management without factoring in culture can seriously thwart your company’s plans—not to mention success. The two are irrevocably linked, so planning carefully for that is important at the outset of change management.
Companies need to understand the nature of their culture from the get-go and identify how that culture will impact their change management plans. Companies also need to be willing to adjust their plans accordingly (both in scope and timeline) while implementing strategies to improve the likelihood of success of the changed plans while also improving culture.
Tackling change management and culture change at once can be a daunting task, but when the success and growth of your company are at stake, the choice is clear. Moving forward with both in mind requires strategy and careful planning, but there’s no reason companies can’t avoid the common pitfalls and thrive.
Kotter, J. (2002) The Heart of Change: Real Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Parish, J., Cadwallader, S. & Busch, P. (2008). Want to, Need to, Ought to: Employee Commitment to Organizational Change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 21 (1), 32-36.
Wilder, Bill. (2014, February 13) Culture and Change Management. Retrieved from: https://www.industryweek.com/leadership/change-management/article/22009641/culture-and-change-management
Cameron, K. & Quinn, R. (2006). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schein, E. (1999). The Corporate Culture Survival Guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.