Avoid These Corporate Culture Change Pitfalls, Part 1

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

According to Gartner’s “Changing Change Management” report, 70% of all change initiatives fail. There is no shortage of reasons for this, and corporate culture change initiatives are no exception. However, corporate culture change initiatives do have predictable and particular pitfalls that hinder success. In the first of this two-part article, I highlight three of these pitfalls and share tips for avoiding them.

Pitfall 1: Focusing mainly on creating the values statements. Words matter, and so we naturally invest effort into getting them right. When we focus too much on the wording, it’s often at the expense of focusing on how to engage people and help them create change so they can instill the culture. The result is that you end up with a lack of alignment, integration, ownership and sustainable impact.

Avoid this pitfall by making a commitment to integration and alignment.

On an individual level, integration requires that people embody the corporate values at work. At a team level, we begin to think about integration and alignment together by asking how to use values-based behaviors to make high-quality decisions and achieve team goals. Be aware that integration and alignment requires several times more effort than those for creation of values and culture statements. Involve as many employees as possible in the creation process.

One of the most effective examples I’ve seen recently comes from a client whose group CEO insisted that value statements come from the employees and not from a small task force led by external consultants. So, we embarked on a year-long journey to find out what employees around the world care about most and how those things create value for customers. The journey included a mix of live sessions and online surveys with a steady cadence of review and revision by a global working team until we could clearly articulate six commonly held values.

When we surveyed more than half of the global employees at the end of the internal launch of the new values, we found that 87% supported them – an unusually high support rate for a new global change initiative. In turn, this positioned the client to accelerate its integration of the new values into employees’ behaviors and its routine business.

Pitfall 2: Information overload and no clear understanding of how everything is related. With so many concepts such as company philosophy, spirit, mission, vision, direction, values, Company “Way”, and performance evaluation criteria, employees are not able to digest or make sense of how they are all aligned and related.

Avoid this pitfall by showing and telling people how everything fits together.

This is not just about creating fancy presentation materials. It’s about confirming, clarifying and organizing all the elements of your corporate philosophy into a clear, structured and meaningful framework. This means employees can use the framework to tell stakeholders a compelling story that incorporates all the elements.

Working with same client I mention above, we spent considerable time with executives so they could internalize the new values and how they fit into the bigger picture of mission, vision and business strategy. Once we built a clear picture of that, we facilitated dialogues to help leaders exchange ideas about how best to align their own units with the new values. They also rehearsed explaining their understanding of the values, the business case for implementing them and their ideas for aligning unit operations with company values to their own teams.

And in parallel, we worked with individual company CEOs within the group to design a communication cascade tailored for each of their own organizations. And, importantly, every CEO and general manager played a personal, active role in the communications cascade.

Pitfall 3: People feel forced to change. Employees are resistant, and they perceive values and culture initiatives as a one-way, top-down attempt by the company to change their minds and personal values.

Avoid this pitfall by use a high-involvement, company-wide approach.

As I wrote about recently, taking an inclusive, high-involvement approach to change raises the chances of success. This involves creating a culture change execution team and change agents from all levels of the organization and developing the change agents’ skills and mindset so they can influence others. Making sure people get involved and stay involved takes a commitment to carefully surface and listen to employees’ concerns and needs related to the change – even when we know we do not yet have answers for them. The logic behind this is that people are more likely to support change when their needs are satisfied. And, if we understand what types of concerns people have, we can respond by communicating the right information or taking the right action at the right time to address and satisfy their needs.

Falling into any of these three pitfalls can derail your culture change plans. But knowing where the pitfalls are in advance so you can avoid them raises your chances for success. In the second part of this article, I’ll share tips for avoiding three more common corporate culture change pitfalls:

  • When people look to their leaders, they don’t see the values or culture.
  • Employees have no meaningful, personal connection with the organization’s values
  • The initial rollout is a success, but the new culture doesn’t stick.

Until then, I invite you to listen to the latest episodes of Humans At Work, my podcast that helps businesspeople create a better world by exploring the human side of work.