In our previous post we featured psychological safety and its crucial importance to creativity and innovation. Goes without saying, psychological safety is part and parcel of positive, high performance workplace cultures. Moreover, to begin the journey to a psychologically safe work environment is to embark on cultural transformation. It’s a great segue to our next topic: the role of culture in the change process.

As an organizational change consultant I am rarely willing to offer messages containing certitudes. However, for the following I will make an exception. After all, precious resources are at stake! It’s simple. Change initiatives implemented from the top down, without consideration for the condition of the organization’s culture, and void of robust collaboration are doomed to failure.

You may have heard this infamous statistic: the rate of failed change in the US is 70%. Don’t believe it! We consultants do not like to admit that we don’t know the exact percentage of failed change. In fact, it is impossible to collectively attribute specific failure or success rates to all forms of organizational change. However, I hope you aren’t awash in relief. The amount and cost of failed change is staggering. This we know.

Why so much failure? Is it poor leadership? Employee resistance? Is it a focus on technical as opposed to the people side of change? Sure! It’s all of these things, but here’s the bottom line: change fails when these well-intentioned initiatives are built on thin foundations. In other words, change fails when the organizational culture is unhealthy. When people don’t trust leadership or each other. In these organizations resistance is natural and sabotage is rampant.

I know a talented young woman (in full disclosure, my niece) who has assumed a leadership role at a local community college out West. I recently toured her school and I was captivated by the size and splendor of the campus; a first impression corroborated by an impressive, 14-foot tall dinosaur skeleton that greets visitors in the main building. This striking community college is expanding with a sizable construction project underway, alongside plans to adopt and implement an ambitious new business model intended to transform the school’s time-honored educational methodology. The college has hired a respected company to help implement the initiative; the firm comes with good models, nice charts, impressive graphics, and polished consultants. There is only one problem. The college’s organizational culture is in the tank: many staff members are bitterly unhappy, climate surveys reflect disturbingly low satisfaction scores, and the college has received poor press in the local papers. Speaking with this dynamic new manager on the topic of the proposed change initiative, she conveyed her concerns and her impressions of the overall employee reaction. I heard the message loud and clear: RESISTANCE!

No matter the collective brilliance, without a healthy organizational culture your change initiatives are likely to deteriorate and collapse. Why? Every employee in the organization has what I call a “propensity for sabotage.” Admit it or not, disgruntled employees will gleefully support the demise of – or simply not support – your costly change project. However, no need to despair, there is a path forward. Once employees understand that leadership is making a genuine and sustained effort to change the culture in a highly collaborative way (note that last point, it’s very important) the potential for success dramatically improves. This brings me to the next question:

Are you considering or in the midst of a major change initiative? If so, here are three critical questions you should ask:

  1. Do employees believe their company has a positive organizational culture and is a good place to work?
  2. Did (or will) representatives throughout the organization participate in the conception and planning for the change initiative?
  3. Is there a plan in place to communicate with and involve all employees/stakeholders in the change initiative?

If your answer to any of these questions is no, I urge you to save your precious resources and put a temporary halt to your current or proposed initiatives. Instead, take a step back (deep breathing helps) and begin with a focus on the basics; that is, to understand and build a positive culture. You can think of it this way: the first order of business is to design and build a strong foundation that will support a change-ready, world-class organization.

Former GE CEO Jack Welch once famously said, “The soft stuff is the hard stuff.” It seemed a marvelously salient point at the time, but I disagree. Sure, if your company or institution boasts a traditional-style leader (you know the type, they like to ride white horses) at the helm of a top-down, highly bureaucratic organization, then uniting the troops around change will be hard, very hard. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Truly! Not if you take action: collaborate with all stakeholders to create a shared vision; make the transformation process a genuinely collaborative undertaking; and, in so doing, facilitate leadership roles for staff that tap into the hidden resources of the organization.

Here are 3-C action elements of the change process:

  1. Collaborate and Communicate courageously: Know that change is a collaborative effort, two-way communication is essential, and leadership is a team sport.
  2. Create psychological safety: Task all with finding ways to create emotional safety. You can’t have a healthy culture without it.
  3. Conspire for change: Assemble a group of representatives from all levels (including executive leadership) to create a Planning to Plan (P2P) team. The team’s task will be to organize a large-scale meeting with all staff to help plan the transformation (it can be done!). Purpose is to communicate the newly minted, shared vision and involve all in the creation and implementation of the change. Remember, people support what they help to create.

Here are 3-C support elements of the change process:

  1. Clarify the mission and purpose: Get input from all stakeholders and ensure this happens early in the process.
  2. Convey the positive: Continually emphasize and build on the positive aspects of the organization’s vision, mission, purpose, and culture.
  3. Call for help: If you don’t have the resources internally, then bring in the expertise you need to help guide the process. The right support will make the difference!

The truth is, change is not hard if your organizational culture is healthy. It simply takes a psychologically safe work environment, leadership at all levels, and patience with the process. Change isn’t hard, but it does take courage.

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