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2017-09-17 17:54
By Kim Jong-nam



In a meeting with the managers in charge of the organizational culture of their medium-sized corporation, they told me, “You don’t have to submit a detailed consulting report, as long as there are visible outcomes. We have already gone through many attempts to change our corporate culture; however, they never succeeded, so all we care about are results. We will leave the specifics of the methods and strategies to you.” When I heard this, I realized how desperate their situation was.

Then, when going through the consulting process, I found some interesting points. One bright spot was that they were on the same page with me with regard to the fact that the most crucial step in this transformation would be getting their top-line leaders to change their behavior. However, there were some more difficult aspects. For one, they were anxious about quick outcomes. This was not because they didn’t realize that corporate culture cannot change within a very short period, but rather because they wanted to report positive results to their CEO as soon as possible, as he was the change initiator. Furthermore, they were very conscious of the top line’s responses. Of course, these were both understandable, but were causing significant obstacles to the change initiative.

The reasons for this are as following:

1. As anyone in organizations knows, cultural change comes when leaders can model how and what to change. As Edgar Schein (a professor at MIT and a renowned scholar in the field of organizational culture) emphasizes, leadership and organizational culture are two sides of a coin. Given this, if people who need to lead a culture change are nervous about the responses of high-level executives, it will be really tough for them to tell their leaders what to model or to get them to model in the first place. Moreover, when an organization wants to change its hierarchical culture to a horizontal culture, leaders are apt to remain top-down and directive, as is their habit, unless forced to change. Then, if they continue to mandate instead of discussing and listening, any kind of effort for change will become preposterous. Actions and words should be consistent, as actions always speak louder than words. The behavior, mindset and values that leaders show should be consistent with the new culture that they are pursuing. Who will effectively control and lead the leaders was the big question.

2. The managers in charge of the change focused on what was visible much more than what was invisible. They were quick to replace their slogans, their symbols, and even their dress code. However, they did not pay attention to their employees’ behavior. That is, even though the employees needed to have new tools and skills, they were negligent about equipping themselves with them, and so their behavior didn’t change. A frequent complaint of the employees was that “the leaders should change first, and cultural change does not result from changing some skills.” However, changing corporate culture is a matter of teaching employees and executives new behavior; in order to do so, behavior should be taught and practiced in real life, even though it takes time. For example, if a free discussion culture is pursued, employees need to understand how to lead and participate in a free discussion. If not, active inertia will prevail and people will remain the same. Obsolete mindsets and, in particular, old behavior are the enemies to defeat. In terms of changing corporate culture, what is invisibly embedded in behavior is much stronger than what is visible. Since values and consciousness are deeply rooted, conquering behavior is the fastest way.

3. These managers were focused on the changes of the top-line executives. However, as Gregory Shea (a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania) says, leading an organization-wide change requires multiple approaches. Organizational structure, workplace design, tasks, compensation, evaluation, information sharing, decision-making and people are the main factors that impact organizational change. Shea states that at least four factors should be utilized. Using one of the most common metaphors for organizational culture, DNA, one might say that it takes root in every corner of an organization and affects all of its elements. Transitioning into a horizontal culture is not that different. Thus, multiple approaches are instrumental in succeeding, due to the complexity and simultaneity of the change. However, the managers tended to focus on training and what was outwardly visible. It is true that these are essential elements; however, their ripple effect was limited because, as mentioned above, the old DNA was still there. Considering all this, efforts for change should be conducted at the same time at every level of an organization. Transitioning into a horizontal culture is not merely a matter of changing mindsets but also of changing many facets of the organization.

As discussed above, there are a lot of elements to be considered when changing a culture. What is most important is that balance should be maintained: balance between organization-wide observation and behavior-specific diagnosis, balance between how leaders are changing and how all levels of employees are participating, and balance between the “soft side” of employees’ mindsets and the “hard side” of organizational systems. Change management luminaries say that about 75% of change fails, and culture change is one of the most difficult changes. Taking these hard truths into account, people in charge of organizational culture should have the basic attitude that changing culture is more like changing a whole ecosystem, rather than changing a habitat. Thus, a big-picture sketch must be done meticulously before beginning.



Kim Jong-nam is the founding CEO of META(www.imeta.co.kr) and the author of two books "Organizations without Meetings" and "Breaking the Silent Rules."

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