The value systems in business have undergone a gradual shift over the past 50 years. This shift is driven by an increased focus on customers and on the individual contribution that employees can make to the business. This shift in values creates an interesting dilemma and potentially serious issues for managers wanting to introduce top-down changes or large change initiatives today.

The problem was first evident with large reengineering projects in the early 1990's. Senior managers faced with financial crisis needed change immediately. They required fundamental, and dramatic change to business processes, systems and organization structures to keep pace with competitors and a rapidly changing marketplace.

Mandated top-down change produced surprising results. As managers in some companies sought to mandate major change throughout their organization, they were surprised to find widespread resistance from employees and mid-level managers. Why? To understand one of the contributors to this employee resistance, you must first understand the shift in values that has occurred in the work place.

Traditional values

Immediately following World War II the world economy entered a growth mode. Production volume was a key component of this growth. Business models focused on productivity and output. The business values fostered during this period were best characterized by Peter Block, in his book, Stewardship, as

  • Predictability
  • Control
  • Consistency

Similar to the values found in a military hierarchy, these values were common place in many businesses. In some businesses they are still present today. In this value system, business managers want predictable performance and outcomes, they value tight control over the day-to-day activities of employees and they value consistency in work performance. Employees are rewarded and encouraged to perform the same each day. This is consistent with business objectives focused on mass production.

With this traditional value system, change is managed under a strict chain of command. Managers have tight control over employees and they expect compliance with any change. A military field group has similar attributes. When a change is made, soldiers are not busy talking about why the change is being made and what caused the change (wondering if they want to go along with it). They simply act - "where do we need to go, what do we need to do."

Values shift

From the early 1970's through the 1990's, an era of quality and customer focus emerged. Programs within many companies began to change the role of employees. Examples include:

  • Toyota (Quality Circles)
  • Ford (Quality is Job 1)
  • Motorola (Six Sigma)
  • AT&T (Statistical Quality Improvement)
  • Xerox (Benchmarking)

The focus shifted from mass production to mass customization and personalization. The customer was king and quality was paramount. TQM (Total Quality Management) became the buzz word. In this environment, the role of employees began to change.

Employees were now being asked to:

  • be responsive to their customers
  • improve their day-to-day work processes
  • take ownership for the quality of their work

New values

The values began to shift from predictability, control and consistency to:

  • Flexibility and empowerment
  • Accountability for results
  • Ownership (of work output and work processes)

Managers began placing more control in the hands of employees, empowering them to make decisions that impact customers. Employees were accountable for their work output and quality, and took ownership for not only the product or service, but the process of producing products and delivering service.

Given a business change under this new value system, what type of behavior and reaction would you expect from employees?

  Old Values New Values
Command Jump Jump
Response How High? Why?

As you might expect, change in the old value system is easier to implement than change in the new value system. In fact, employee resistance to change in the new value system can be great enough to stop a change. Why? Because you cannot build a culture of ownership and accountability, and then when radical and immediate change is needed simply pretend that this culture and value system do not exist. With ownership comes a natural reaction to protect what has been given to you.

Interesting dilemma

This shift in values creates an interesting dilemma and potentially serious issues for managers wanting to introduce top-down changes or large change initiatives.

Why is this important? How does your organization's values impact change management?

This shift in values systems in business today explains why, more than any other factor, change management is not simply an important competency or task for major change projects. Change management for large change projects is the most important and frequently cited success factor overall - even above and beyond the actual business solution.

Business leaders must consider the impact of this shift in values on their ability to manage change. If your company has embraced these new values or you have a large population of employees that foster these new values, then change management is not an option for successful change, it is a requirement.

Second, change management as a discipline must now address both the organization and the individual. As a change agent or change management practitioner, it is no longer sufficient to implement general organizational change management activities like communications and training. Individual change management models are necessary to address the value systems that drive individuals to hold on to their current way of doing work.

Summary

When examining the culture and values of an organization targeted for change, answer the following questions:

  • How would you characterize the values of the organization?
  • Do employees have a strong sense of ownership and accountability for their work output? If yes, what caused that value to take hold in the organization?
  • Do employees take responsibility for making improvements in work processes as part of their normal job responsibilities?
  • What happens when managers try to take over or mandate change to these work processes?
  • Does the value system in your organization result in employees accepting top-down mandated change or resisting this type of change?

The answers to these questions will help you understand one component of employee resistance to change, and will help you develop a change management strategy that accounts for this shift in values.

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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.