How do the values of an organization impact the approach to managing change?

The business world is fascinated by culture. Academics have studied it. Authors have written about it. Great leaders know how to leverage culture to ensure wildly successful business outcomes. Conversely, well-documented case studies demonstrate how incorrect assumptions about organizational values can lead to misunderstandings at best and failed projects and lost profit at worst. In the frenzied quest for a silver bullet to understand what culture tells us about the way business should be conducted, there is little debate that organizational value systems have a powerful influence.

As a change manager, one key fact about culture stands out: organizational value systems impact the way change happens. What is important to our organization? How are decisions made? Who is in charge? How do I relate to other employees and groups within our organization? What behaviors are rewarded and recognized? What is compensation based upon?

The answers to these questions vary from country to country, from industry to industry, from organization to organization and from department to department. It is critical for all change managers to understand the underlying values of their organizations because these factors directly influence the way change will be accepted and how much work will ultimately be required to ensure successful outcomes for the business.

Universal principles - unique manifestations

Research from Prosci and from many other sources over the years shows that certain core aspects of change are common to all humans, regardless of title, industry or nationality. This series of tutorials focuses on some of those underlying universals:

  • Communication is essential yet there is a disconnect between senders and receivers.
  • Change happens on an individual and deeply personal level. Resistance is the normal human reaction to change.
  • Leaders bring authority for change and legitimize changes within an organization.
  • The size and scope of the change itself impacts how it will be received.
  • On its own, the right answer is not enough to bring about change.
  • Change is a process.

Overlaying each principle is the reality that a shared set of values and beliefs an organization holds uniquely and tangibly impacts how these universals will play out on any given change. One example of this is the fundamental motivator of desire. Every individual has an intrinsic need to accept and acknowledge the benefits of a change in order to fully support it. They need to know the answer to the question "what's in it for me?" However, cultural factors influence whether that question is approached from a collective or individualistic perspective. Some value systems focus on "what's in it for us as a group," while others take great stock in "what's in it for me as an individual."

A second example comes in the way resistance is displayed or expressed. In some organizational cultures, resistance is very visible. Employees readily make their objections known openly and loudly. In other cultures, particularly those with values around deference to authority, dissent is much less overt, often taking the form of passive or underground resistance. Resistance to change is universal - how an employee actually resists and what that resistance looks like will depend on culture and values.

The fundamental facets of change management - communications, sponsorship, coaching, training, and resistance management - are necessary the world over. The basic questions a change manager asks are the same in any organization. It is the answers to those questions and the manifestation of the change management activities that need to be approached differently from group to group.

Values impact employee reaction to change

The culture of an organization has a direct impact on how employees react to change and what specific change management strategies will be most effective. An organization's value system is an important and telling factor in how much change management effort is needed on a given project.

In many modern workplaces, employees are personally engaged with and heavily invested in the current state. They take ownership of their work and feel authority to make decisions about their own work processes and work environments. These values have proven very positive when it comes to productivity and performance metrics. However, they create a greater need for change management. People demand to know why any given change is being made and have to see a clear answer to the question "what's in it for me?"

The role of change managers in this type of environment is larger and more involved, particularly when a change initiative is introduced from the top down. Change managers can expect to expend more effort in anticipating and managing resistance. Employees must each go through a personal transition process in order for change to be realized on an organizational scale. Targeted plans need to be orchestrated for both individuals and groups of impacted employees.

Contrast that with a more traditional command and control system in the workplace. Change frequently happened from the top down; employees did not have decision-making authority. "Because the senior leader said so" in and of itself was a great motivator of desire in a patriarchal environment. These traditional operating structures are still prevalent today in some industries and geographic locations.

In the traditional environment, change management is necessary but it takes less dedicated time and energy. People who are engaged and fully understand why the change is being made will be more committed and produce better results. However, the amount of effort required for building desire is lower, as is the amount of work managing resistance at the individual level. Simple sponsorship activities make a significant impact. Though passive or unspoken resistance still exists, open resistance is less prevalent because consistency and predictability are rewarded behaviors.

Changing value systems

Other changes in the business world have spawned similar shifts in values that have increased the amount of change management work to be done. The rapidly increasing speed of business and the expectation of more, better and faster results in the marketplace demands a level of change capacity unseen before. Almost three-quarters of participants in Prosci's 2016 Best Practices in Change Management Benchmarking Report indicated their organization was nearing, at, or past the point of change saturation. The common symptoms of a change saturated environment cited in the study - disengagement, apathy, burn-out and automatic resistance - necessitate more time and resources dedicated to change management activities.

The effects of globalization and the internet era further influence the value systems of organizations and increase the amount of change management work to be done. Many organizations, from large multi-national corporations to local family-owned businesses, do not have a homogeneous workforce. Cultural values within the same organization vary from person to person and this drives a need for more individualized and intricate change management plans. The internet era has created an expectation in the workforce of real-time communication and a constant flow of information. This provides a change manager with more information to manage and disseminate through a wider variety of channels in order to meet that expectation.

The net effect of these shifts in values and realities over the past 50 years is that change management is needed more today than ever before because of the new values system of the workforce. Change managers must undertake change from a holistic perspective that addresses both the organization as a whole and the individual. Individual change management models are necessary, in parallel to organizational change management methodologies, to support employees who operate with modern value systems.

Key lessons for change managers:

  • Value systems are the organizational canvas on which any change project is painted. Listen carefully and observe constantly to gain insight about the leadership structure, organizational history and underlying beliefs of the groups impacted by the change.
  • The basic principles of change management will be manifested differently in every organization. Conduct an organizational attributes assessment to spur discussion about these issues and to help you make sure you have asked the right questions. There is no magic formula for fully understanding value systems.
  • Only after the strategy work is complete, customize and scale specific change management action plans that take into account the unique value systems of the impacted organizations.
  • With changing values in business and in the world at large, change management as a discipline must address both the organization as a whole and the individual. Focusing exclusively on traditional organizational change activities such as communication and training is no longer sufficient.

Additional Resources:

The Seven Principles of Change Management

The Right Answer is Not Enough

Change is a Process
Prosci Change Management Certification Program - CTA

Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.

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