A Culture of Change

The "Change" lesson tackled leading change through the lens of process management. It underlined the importance of understanding the change process stages and suggested ways managers can navigate through it. This lesson will discuss an alternate aspect of change management, that of culture or context. I have found in my experience that attempting to instill a change that lacks context or ignores the culture inherent in the workgroup the change is being thrust upon will ultimately fail. It is essential that leaders gain an understanding of the organizations culture and norms, the inherent beliefs and attitudes of their employees, before embarking on a change strategy. A change strategy that does not properly align itself within the existing culture or one that does not begin with an attempted re-alignment of the culture will undoubtedly be unsuccessful. This lesson will attempt to create a greater understanding of the effects that organizational culture has on change strategy as well as give leaders a tool to help assess their organization’s culture. This lesson, along with the previous one, should equip leaders with the knowledge and skills to successfully lead change in their organizations.

Roy Smollan and Janet Sayers discuss the role organizational culture plays in change management theory in their 2009 article “Organizational Culture, Change and Emotions.” They delve into the affects that organizational culture has on employees and their reactions to change. “An organization’s affective culture, which shapes the way emotions are experienced and expressed, plays a particularly important part during changes to the culture and other aspects of organizational life.”[1] Their research centered on employees emotional reactions to changes in the workplace. These emotions are bred by values and attitudes that have evolved over time in an organization.  “Large organizations connect with their people most directly through values – and those values, ultimately, are about beliefs and feelings.”[2] An organization’s culture evolves over time. It encompasses expectations regarding the way the organization functions, its norms, the accepted beliefs that are underlying in the organization, prevailing attitudes about management and how things are handled; basically “how things are done around here.”[3] Different sub-cultures or clicks tend to form within organizations based upon different viewpoints regarding the organization’s culture.  These clicks usually have different responses in regard to change.

“While change has cognitive, affective and behavioral components, the affective aspects are frequently overlooked.”[4] Smollan and Sayers look to emotional reactions of employees, their moods and attitudes, to help understand the affective component of change. They postulate that change within an organization alters the moods and triggers emotional reactions from employees depending upon the employee’s “perceived valence of the outcomes, the change processes that are used, the speed, timing and frequency of change, the nature of leadership and the employee’s personality and emotional intelligence.”[5] Managers need to anticipate these emotional reactions to change in order to effectively design a change strategy that will be successful.

Understanding your organization’s culture is essential to enacting change. The article attempts to understand what types of emotions are triggered by change, whether existing culture inhibits change by inhibiting the expression of emotions. Organizational culture is essentially about values. The culture is reflective of values that have evolved throughout an organization. The authors note that “Culture is what a group learns over a period of time as that group solves its problems of survival in an external environment and its problems of internal integration.”[6] Learned responses become guides for employee behavior.  Employees make decisions in the workplace based on expected responses gleaned from experience. Smollan and Sayers reflect that employees’ individual identities are shaped somewhat by the organizational values of their workplace. The organization’s culture “provides a “glue” and understanding in that it can help individual members make sense of events and change activities.  Change can dislodge identity and lead to anxiety and grieving.”[7] They go on to discuss realities in which organizational culture and norms discourage employee emotion or try to manipulate employee emotions to benefit the company. “A healthy organizational culture,” according to Smollan and Sayers, “is one where emotional expressiveness is encouraged and value is placed on the emotional elements of work.”[8]

Organizational culture can deem when it is appropriate to display emotions and when it is not. Organizations that have cultures that allow employees to display emotions are usually equipped with managers and supervisors that have high emotional intelligence (EI). Managers with high EI are able to respond properly and help guide employee emotion toward achievement of overall goals. This article reflects that organizations with leaders who have high EI will be able to navigate through changes more capably than organizations that do not. Employees will have either negative emotional reactions or positive emotional reactions to change, depending on what subculture they belong to in an organization. When employees believe that a change is unfair to their workgroup, they will react negatively. If the organizational culture does not react well to employee emotions, then the dissatisfaction may spread and possibly stall the change effort. Employees’ emotional reactions to change must be handled sensitively.  Organizations need to anticipate emotional reactions to change and equip their leaders with tools to help guide employees through the changes emotionally. “Since culture has emotive elements and change is frequently emotional, it is important for managers and consultants to be aware of the culture of the organization and what the consequences are when it changes.”[9] Change is implemented more easily if individual employee values are in line with organizational values. When values are aligned, there results positive feelings regarding change as it is seen as beneficial to both the employee and the organization. Leaders need to assess the values of their employees and determine if they are in line with the overall values of the organization. If they are not, then “getting staff to buy into a new culture through values alignment might be the key to successful change.”[10]

This idea leads directly into an article found in the March 2002 Journal of Change Management called “Aligning Individual and Organizational Values to Support Change.” This article discusses how organizations, by aligning the values of their employees to that of the company, can change more readily than organizations that do not. The authors point to values as “the primary driver of employee motivation and, secondly, they provide a standard against which actions are evaluated.”[11] They discuss the most common workplace values as “taking responsibility, achieving results, developing a sense of worth, recognition and being able to use their skills and abilities.”[12] The authors discuss the ability that organizational values have to drive behavior when they are culturally imbedded in the company. Once they are embedded and employees have bought into them “by attaching their emotions” to them “the values act as a moral compass both for routine decisions and for those that are very difficult.”[13] The more in tune employees are to the culture and values of an organization, the less that they need to be micro-managed. Also, “in this age of constant change, values-led companies have a further advantage: in times of reorganization, mergers, and downsizing, employees are less prone to stress and are able to keep functioning well.”[14] This is attributed to the fact that the company’s values have likely stayed constant and offer a stable backdrop to change efforts.

It is of utmost importance that leaders assess the values inherent in the workplace. Managers need to properly gauge the culture in relation to the stated values of the company. The values of the company must be presented to the employee group. There must be an open dialogue between management and employees, allowing honest evaluation of value metrics. “It is crucial that the management be seen to be living the values and actively working on dealing with shortfalls in their own behavior.”[15] This article emphasizes that the organizational values need to be adopted both emotionally and intellectually, and this two-plane acceptance will lead to good morale and a team atmosphere which will allow the introduction of change initiatives.

F. John Reh defines company culture as “the shared values and practices of the company’s employees”[16] in his article “Company Culture, What it is and How to Change It.” The author points out that a company’s underlying culture is experiencing ongoing change. It evolves over time. Reh suggests frequently assessing the culture of your organization to ensure that leaderships’ understanding of the company culture is in line with employees’ perceptions. He says that by listening to customers, suppliers, and employees, leaders can make an assessment of the underlying value system inherent in the organization. If the results are not in line with the desired values, leaders must decide where change is needed. He suggests that organizations “develop a specific action plan that can leverage the good things in your current culture and correct the unaligned areas. Only a company culture that is aligned with your goals, one that helps you anticipate and adapt to change, will help you achieve superior performance over the long run.”[17]

Jim Collins, in his article “Aligning Actions and Values,” expounds on the need to have employee attitudes and perceptions aligned with the overall company vision.  He surmises that leaders tend to spend an inordinate amount of time drafting vision and value statements, and neglect to spend any time trying to align their employee’s beliefs with that espoused vision. Collins sees a company’s vision as a combination of its core values, future goals, and overall reason for being in existence. He points out that an organization that has truly imbedded vision and values into their culture could have a visitor “drop into their organization from another planet and infer the vision without having to read it on paper.”[18] Collins discusses that in order to align employee values with organizational values, culture needs to be assessed, and then any inconsistencies between organizational values and employee values needs to be aligned. “The misalignments exist not because the statements are false: these companies believe what they say. The misalignments occur because years of ad hoc policies and practices have become institutionalized and have obscured the firm’s underlying values.”[19] Collins stresses that in order correct these inconsistencies, it must be safe for employees to identify where their values and perceptions differ from the company vision. There needs to be a safe way for employees to point out managerial inconsistencies as well. He suggests having suggestion boxes, but taking them a bit further, by making a company commitment to post responses to all suggestions within two business days.

Collins closes by discussing core values that underlie all other values. These are values that transcend time, that do not change, whereas the overlay of business practices and strategies will change over time.  He defines three key questions that need to be asked when defining core values of an organization:

Can you envision these values being as valid 100 years from now as they are today? Would you want the organization to continue to hold these values, even if at some point one or more of them became a competitive disadvantage? If you were to start a new organization tomorrow in a different line of work, what core values would you build into the new organization regardless of its activities?”[20]

 He closes by reminding readers that most leaders spend an immense amount of time writing vision statements in an attempt to define core values of their organization. However, they spend little or no time assessing the current company culture and value systems in order to understand what misalignments need to be corrected.

The critical component to ensuring that your organization’s values are aligned with your employees’ values and that their perceptions of workplace culture are an accurate reflection of the overall expectations surrounding your desired company vision is to be able to properly assess these attributes. In 2005, Aiman-Smith, et al, designed a tool to do just that. They call it the VIQ, Value Innovation Potential Assessment Tool or Value IQ assessment tool. This tool, according to the authors, unearths important value factors such as: “meaningful work, risk-taking culture, customer orientation, agile decision making, business intelligence, open communication, empowerment, business planning, and learning organization.”[21] It “looks at patterns of relationships among many variables, with the goal of discovering something about the nature of an underlying value factor that affects all of them.”[22]  This tool should help leaders assess underlying values of their organization and subsequently determine if they are in line with the overall stated vision of the company. The results should define areas in which alignment needs to occur. Many times, it can point out inconsistencies between the espoused values of the organization and practices and processes imbedded in the culture. When inconsistencies are unearthed, leaders should develop action plans to shore up deficiencies and, in so doing, develop a stronger employee-company value alignment which will lead to higher morale, increased job satisfaction, and better productivity. This tool should help leaders gain an understanding of the organization’s culture and norms, the inherent beliefs and attitudes of their employees, and in so doing, help them devise a relevant change strategy.[23]

[1] Smollan, Roy K. and Janet G. Sayers. “Organizational Culture, Change and Emotions: A Qualitative Study,” Journal of Change Management. 9/4. (2009): 435.

[2] Ibid. 435.

[3] Ibid. 435.

[4] Ibid. 436.

[5] Ibid. 436.

[6] Ibid. 438.

[7] Ibid. 439.

[8] Ibid. 441.

[9] Ibid. 451.

[10] Ibid. 449.

[11] Sullivan, Wendy, Robert Sullivan, and Barbara Buffton. “Aligning Individual and Organizational Values to Support Change.” Journal of Change Management. 2/3. (2002): 248.

[12] Ibid. 248.

[13]Ibid. 249.

[14] Ibid. 249.

[15] Ibid. 253.

[16] Reh, F. John. “Company Culture, What it is and How to Change It.” Management, (2000): 1. <>

[17] Ibid. 2

[18] Collins, Jim. “Aligning Action and Values.” The Forum, (2000):1. <>

[19] Ibid. 2.

[20] Ibid. 3.

[21] Aiman-Smith, L., N. Goodrich, D. Roberts and J. Scinta, “Assessing Your Organization’s Potential for Value Innovation.” Research Technology Management. 48/2. (2005): 39.

[22] Ibid. 39.

[23] Ibid. 40.

Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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