We all know that culture has a huge impact on our change management projects. To reinforce this, 90% of participants in Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition rated cultural awareness as either important or very important to a change management initiative. Being culturally aware enables change managers to customize their change management approach, utilize culturally specific adaptations (while avoiding culturally specific obstacles), and create effective communication plans with the culture of their audience in mind.
However, “culture” is exceptionally broad and can be difficult to understand. In the 2016 report, we sought to bring some structure and tangibility to how we define culture and how we can use our understanding of culture to better apply change management practices.
An old professor of mine was fond of saying, "Culture is to humans what water is to fish." The fish lives its entire life swimming through the water. The slightest variance in purity or temperature, and there would be a profound impact on the fish. We humans also live our lives moving through culture, which impacts us in thousands of tiny ways, and like the fish in water we are not always aware of what we are swimming through.
In relation to organizations and our discipline, we find that change management is most effective when the cultural context of impacted employee groups is fully understood and influences the approach. In the Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition we have a full chapter dedicated to this new, groundbreaking topic so that you can benchmark unique challenges and specific adaptations based on your organization’s cultural factors.
Our first challenge in working with our own and other cultures is to recognize its impact. For example, different cultures will view and interact with work relationships differently. Activities and trainings may need to be adapted to cultural-specific standards, and communications might need to be customized for different cultural settings.
Anthropologists, intercultural communication professionals and cultural scholars have been using "cultural dimensions" to study various cultures for several years. In doing so they have created a language and framework to help us describe culture. Our research builds on the works of Hofstede, Trompenaars, Hampden-Turner and many others, with works such as the 1980 Culture and Consequences, 2004 Globe Study, and 1997 Riding the Waves of Culture.
Cultural dimensions are characteristic spectrums that exist in a culture. Take, for example, the characteristic of assertiveness, a dimension that describes the degree to which a person is able and expected to advocate for his/her personal well-being and goals in their relationships with others.
At one end of the spectrum, organizations with low assertiveness communicate in indirect, subtle ways, often practicing passive, face-saving communication with an expectation that subordinates will loyally follow executives’ leads.
At the other end of the spectrum, communication tends to be assertive to the point of being aggressive or confrontational. Communication is direct, delivered in a blunt, unambiguous manner and subordinates are expected to take initiative during interactions with executives.
These are extremes, but identifying your location on the spectrum of assertiveness helps to highlight potential challenges and adaptations, given your location. In a low assertiveness culture, for example, feedback may be very unreliable as individuals are likely to shy away from difficult, honest messages out of fear of upsetting recipients. This ambiguous communication then forces others to make educated guesses rather than base their adjustments and customizations on accurate feedback. Knowing these challenges in this specific cultural setting, steps can be taken to encourage honest, direct feedback that provides important information.
On the other hand, in high assertiveness cultures we might see extreme resistance, expressed very vocally. Individuals who dislike the change initiative might bluntly refuse to adopt the changes and actively encourage others to do the same. Too much feedback may also slow the project execution. If this strong response can be predicted, extra efforts can be made to identify potential sources of resistance and plan for resistance management. Clearly, understanding your position on the cultural assertiveness spectrum is highly beneficial.
To clarify, these spectrums are not designed to accurately describe the behavior of every individual within their respective culture; rather, they serve to describe a culture’s expectations and beliefs.
Think of these cultural dimensions as lenses that reveal to us the inner workings of a culture, information we can then use to enhance and improve the effectiveness of our change management efforts.
In the 2016 report, we began by identifying the cultural dimensions that have the largest impact on change management:
We asked our research participants to place the culture they worked in on each of these cultural spectrums (from extremely low to extremely high). Then we asked our participants what specific challenges they faced in their change management work, due to their placement on each specific cultural dimension. And finally, what adaptations they would make to address these challenges. All of this data is in our Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition, where the data and scores are listed by region and industry.
Now, to explain how understanding your specific culture can help your change management work, let's use a different cultural dimension as an example: power distance (the degree to which power is distributed - equally versus unequally - with people at the bottom accepting their position).
In low power distance cultures, there is little formal structure or hierarchical separation; employees have access to higher-level members, expect that all voices will be heard and expect that company-wide decisions will be made democratically. In this specific cultural setting, participants identified the challenges they faced and the adaptations they made:
This is just a sample of the insights that were yielded when change managers began viewing change management through the lens of culture. For more findings, see the full report: Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition, or download the free executive summary to learn more.
Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition provides incredible insight on the six cultural dimensions detailed above. While insight is a great step, the real value comes from applying a greater understanding of culture in a way that yields positive results in our change initiatives. Here’s how you can use this research to enhance your work:
Consider where the impacted individuals fall on each of the six spectrums. If you are charged with managing a change that will impact individuals in a variety of different cultures (which we see often in global organizations), take time to understand and appreciate each of the cultures that will be impacted, how they differ from one another and how you can alter your approach for each of these audiences.
Understand where your home culture presents on the cultural spectrums and how your personal paradigm may differ from the culture you’re managing change in. This will help you to better understand how you can interact with and work with other cultures. We can never (nor should we) leave our cultural upbringing behind, but as global change professionals, it is important that we understand how our own lens impacts our work.
If we do not adapt our approach and take culture into account, we can find ourselves trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. Find the most culturally-relevant ways to communicate about the change and implement the activities that will have the greatest impact with your audience.
Remember, culture is to humans what water is to fish. It is critically important to keep this in mind when our work centers on helping people change. When we begin to understand culture in a meaningful, tangible way, we are confronted with a choice. Do we want to remain blind to the cultural forces at work in the organizations we’re trying to impact? Or do we want to harness those forces to better our change work, our results and the experiences of those around us?
To learn more about these cultural dimensions and leverage the experience of other change leaders in understanding the challenges and effective adaptations for these dimensions, check out the Best Practices in Change Management – 2018 Edition.
Robert uses his extensive educational background in social science research and writing to continually expand and deepen the body of knowledge dedicated to change management. In his role as Prosci Research Product Family Manager, Robert works to plan, run and produce meaningful advances in the field of change management.