How to Lead Culture Change by Management Example!

22 Aug

Most of us are probably familiar with management moaning about regular employees and how they contribute so little, show little initiative and rarely speak up with any good ideas. Often, the implication is that employee quality and attitude is the problem. Management can be very good at deflecting responsibility and blaming employees is easy. The management response may be that employees are at fault and that we should be tougher on them and hire better people in the future – HR may also be blamed! The chances are that if management jump to these types of conclusions, they will not succeed in implementing positive change, either with existing employees or with new hires, no matter how enthusiastic they seemed when interviewed.

The work culture is not set by words, by lofty ideals, but by action. Corporate values may say one thing, but if management actions are significantly different, they will prevail. If you are seeking a culture with greater employee commitment and contribution, the environment has to be right. Some consistent problems, management related, are:

  • Treating employee like children that cannot be trusted e.g. too many rules, restrictive policies, little tolerance and expecting management direction to be followed without question
  • Excessive focus on time management including attendance, punctuality, not overstaying breaks and always appearing to be busy (not socializing) – more emphasis on being there and looking right , than on the quality of work
  • Too controlling including the need for management approval on practically everything and the manager taking credit for anything positive, including putting his/her name on employee ideas and achievements

An organization with claustrophobic practices (examples above) may still expect employee innovation and “value added” contribution. There may be management campaigns to solicit employee suggestions and greater engagement. There may be generous awards and executive presentations to deserving employees, but the culture may not have advanced. It may be closer to management by exception – the same old ways but introducing a few brighter interludes.

To change to a more modern style and open culture, the executives have to take the lead. They will have to be very clear what they want to achieve and why. The reasons will have to be very specific as any significant cultural change will require considerable investment in money, time and include their recognition that they must also change if they are to spearhead the new direction.   Almost certainly, they will require ongoing professional help, including HR, to track progress and to help them plan and understand what they must do and how their roles must change. Collectively the executive must commit to the change and accept their accountability for making it happen. If change does not happen, they must take responsibility – as with any other business initiative!

How difficult will it be if current employees and line management seem somewhat lacklustre? In my experience, if the environment changes, the attitude of regular employees will change also. They will change not based on management declarations and gimmicky programs, but on demonstrable action affecting day-to-day relationships – actions that are welcomed and reinforce greater trust and confidence in employees. As an example, implementing some aspects of flexible time is normally received very positively.

Line and other management will be the first to change. The changes will probably start from the time management become involved in the early parts of the study (where we are and where we want to be) and study of policies and practices to adjust appropriately to the new/desired culture. Management are equally products of their environment, and with executive new direction leadership and appropriate training, the majority may be very flexible in adapting to a better way of doing things.

Employees also may gradually accept that the changes are real and permanent and as mutual trust develops, previously submerged employee talent and allegiance may come to the surface and significant improvements should result.   The new culture should improve business results, should increase morale and at the same time make the organization a desirable place to be which may greatly help in hiring new talent with the best skills.

Thank you for your interest. Do you have experience of cultural change that has worked well for you? What do you think is most important? How well do you think employees adapt to authentic management led cultural change? I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.





2 Responses to “How to Lead Culture Change by Management Example!”

  1. Blanche Cordero August 23, 2014 at 1:05 am #

    I agree with your article, but there is so much one can write about change because I have found there is no real road map to a new Culture.

    In my experience, I have found the most important components are:
    1. senior executive passion and commitment for a need for change and for making tough decisions in reference to any employees who may become barriers to the change process
    2. they must be able to articulate the “as is” ( what the company looks like now. I would suggest an comprehensive employee survey designed to identify all aspects of the company, culture, executives, benefits, compensation, etc and have it rated. Once you have the employee baseline, I believe the company can proceed with the sr exec’s vision of the desired change.
    3. Employees should be identified, based on prior knowledge of their tolerance to change, as barriers or ad informal leaders to the change process. Make every effort to include as many people as possible and communicate, communicate,communicate! We created a newsletter that included current topics, responded to rumors, highlighted milestones, achievements and people involved in the process, We had employee meetings to respond directly to employee questions. As we all know, in the absence of information, people will simply fill in the blanks with their perceptions and perceptions are their realities. So, COMMUNICATION is one of the most important components of change. One of the things we did to capture “the low hanging fruit” to show employees things were changing was to publish a global directory by name, which included a job title, a department, a location, phone numbers and email address which could be easily sorted by any field. You would have thought we invented the wheel. We learned from the employee survey, employees felt they were wasting a great deal if time locating employees at other locations.

    There is one thing I have to disagree with in your article You say that the employees will eventually perceive the change to be permanent. I believe all employees must understand the only thing that is permanent is change. Nothing will stay the same because to stay competitive, everyone will be expected to think in new ways.

    We put Status Quo signs, with the international symbol / (No) everywhere so everyone would expect change. We used big sheets of brown paper rolled out on walls with new processes shown as flow charts, with sticky pads along the paper, for émiployees to add comments, suggestions, etc. The key was to get as many people involved as possible.

    We also realized we were all learning a new “language of doing business”, such as when we were having more and more ideation sessions, we would “build” on ideas. For us, it was it was a way of reinforcing our culture of collaboration. It was a great time.

    Of course there are so many more areas to address and questions to be answered before a change effort
    begins, but we only have so much space.
    Thank you for allowing me to share.

    • ianclive August 23, 2014 at 1:55 am #

      Hi Blanche,

      That is excellent. Thank you for sharing your experience and professional expertise. Please come back any time with input you would like to share. The more thoughts that are shared, the more thoroughly we can address a subject, particularly one as sensitive as culture.

      I actually agree with everything you say, and the steps and great strategies you describe. When I said that employees will eventually perceive the change to be permanent, I chose my words badly. I meant to convey that at a certain point employees will accept that the change is real (not just words) and the transition has been quite successfully completed.

      My culture change experience relates particularly to merged cultures and evolution constantly has twists and turns. It just takes a new CEO to set it all in another direction – nothing stands still.

      Thank you very much, Blanche. Please come back any time.

      Very best wishes,


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