A reader writes:

I work in a culture where people think that change is temporary and will stop at some point in the future. This leads to high levels of apathy, lack of interest in anything innovative and complete shock when something major does happen. Head in the sand syndrome! How do we move forward with employees like these?

Short answer: With great difficulty!


Long answer:

This one is tough, because as you have identified in your first sentence – this is cultural, and it appears to be a deeply sedimented culture.

Most experienced culture change leaders tell you four years is optimistic for changing a culture radically. It takes a full blown ‘assault’ and comprehensive change strategy and plan.

For a start – Identify the stakeholders and their positions. Apathy can be a symptom of the following

  • Lack of respect for the leadership team (we don’t care what they want)
  • Ineffective consequence management (it doesn’t matter what we do)
  • A disconnect between rewards, resourcing and the desired future state
  • The future state is too far removed from their professional identity – that’s not what I started this career to do.

Apathy may actually be avoidance

What you are telling me is really frightening – I won’t be able to be successful in the new world.  I don’t have the skills and I’m too old, too set in my ways to learn, I’m going to fail.

What you are telling me is stupid – we don’t need it. I haven’t heard a compelling reason for this new behaviour / process / values.

Understanding the root cause of the change response you are seeing allows you to design an effective intervention – for example:

  • Build leadership team credibility and trust
  • Review the rewards and consequences systems
  • Make it easier for them to do their jobs
  • Address individual career transitions
  • Training and development
  • Focus on the change communication

Sometimes the way forward is not to try and change the existing culture to a radically new one, but rather establish a “bridging culture”. What aspects of the current culture can be retained to meet the newer desired values?  For instance – there is a great big chasm between a bureaucratic culture and an innovative one. What if you were to bridge that gap with a customer responsive culture – could those attached to the bureaucracy identify with the need to focus on customer / constituent? And step them a little closer to innovation in the process?

At the end of the day, I am reminded of the old adage in change “ If you can’t change the person, change the person” . It’s harsh, but possible necessary. A quicker culture change may be achieved by attrition, layoffs and careful recruitment and selection. You need to balance the community response to severe actions with the benefits to be achieved… culture change aint for the faint hearted!

Other readers – what say you?

Dr Jen Frahm – Author of Conversations of Change: A guide to implementing workplace change.

1 Comment

  1. Great thoughts Jen. Often culture change isn’t modelled by leadership who tend to think that it’s the staff that need to change and don’t look at their own modus operandi and it’s impacts on the target culture. In addition perceived ‘high performers’ who act in their own interests and not in line with the culture are left to do so because they have ‘important IP’ or their sales figures are ‘to risky to lose’.
    As you say the big ones are timelines being too impatient or where the mindset is ‘all we need is to launch this thing’ I.e no sustained embedding and no linkage of reward to result. I’ve seen Executive reward tied to $ yet the eschewed culture being balanced so you can guess where the effort goes.

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