Culture is a topic that comes up frequently in our courses and my client conversations. Leaders and employees talk about organizational culture, with very different perspectives on what it is, its impact on their work, and its effect on organizational change.
The role culture plays in an organization’s change capability can’t be overlooked. So, I am delighted that Dr. Katharina Kettner has joined our team as our newest alliance partner. She is an expert in organizational culture and change. As we have developed our alliance Katharina and I have had many exciting and fun conversations about the relationship between culture and readiness for change. We have explored how culture impacts readiness and vice versa. One area we are both committed to is helping organizations create a culture of change readiness.
Before exploring what’s needed to build and sustain a culture of change readiness, it’s helpful to understand a little more about culture and its impact on your organization.
Organizational Culture is the Engine that Runs Your Organization
Culture is the collectively held beliefs, learned values, and assumptions that guide and direct individual behaviours and interactions. Dr. Kettner states culture answers the question, “how do we do things around here?” It encompasses all the mindsets that underscore the way work gets done.
Similar to our work with organizational change, Dr. Kettner uses an iceberg to describe the elements of culture. There is a significant component, such as behaviours, artifacts, policies, industry standards, and even ways of dressing, above the waterline. These are the visible representations of your culture.
But as Dr. Kettner describes, there is a more significant part of your culture below the waterline. For example, practiced values (which may differ from those stated on the wall), informal communication, attitudes, and unconscious beliefs. It is these unseen and therefore often ignored aspects of culture that can go unnoticed during change. That’s why you can train people to do something different, but if you don’t address the underlying beliefs, your culture won’t change. The result is that the newly acquired skill or activity doesn’t stick.
Creating a culture of readiness (a change-ready organization) requires you to examine the elements below the waterline. First, to gain an understanding of what they are. Then to assess their impact on what you can observe above the waterline.
One powerful and invisible area of culture that can get overlooked is mindset. Mindset is the way we orientate and encode information about our environment. Thus, our mindset determines the way we interpret, respond, and react to our world.
Change Readiness is More than the Absence of Resistance
Resistance to change has become embedded in almost everyone’s vocabulary. Pick up nearly any article or book on change management, and it will include information about how to manage resistance to change. In our courses and all of my client work, managing resistance is the number one area of concern or question.
The idea that people (all of us) resist change has permeated the organizational culture. As a result, most leaders are operating with a resistance mindset – the belief that people resist change. But it isn’t true.
This mindset, I believe, sabotages an organization’s efforts to enable healthy and sustainable change because leaders with a resistance mindset react and respond to “negative” feedback as a barrier to overcome. There is a sense that if they can handle the resistance, change will occur.
However, a lack of resistance does not mean people are ready and will adopt new behaviours or activities. Readiness is not just the absence of resistance. It is our willingness, capability, and commitment to move toward something new or different. Readiness is the pre-cursor for any change.
For over 10 years, I have advocated for leaders to stop managing resistance and start building readiness. I work with leaders to help them adopt a readiness mindset and work with the natural human response to change. A readiness mindset is based on the belief that when people feel prepared and supported, they will move toward change—leaders who have a readiness mindset focus on building their employees, teams, and organization’s change capability.
A readiness mindset sets you up for success. You can create a culture of change readiness. Below are six additional actions that will help you develop a culture of change readiness.
Six Actions Needed for a Culture of Change Readiness
1. Create an environment where people are comfortable to receive and give feedback about the change event
The ability to receive and give feedback is a necessary part of enabling change. However, leaders with a resistance mindset hear questions, challenges and disagreement about a change event as negative. Then label the people giving the feedback as resistant. To promote a culture of change readiness, you need to receive feedback as information to inform and assist in building readiness.
2. Stay present and practice mindfulness.
One of the critical mechanisms our brain uses to keep us alive is prediction. Dr. Sarah McKay, a Neuroscientist in Australia, states, “every thought, feeling, and action we take is based on the brain’s moment by moment best guess of what will happen next.” The problem is that we base our prediction and, therefore, our response on what’s happened in the past.
Staying present, becoming aware of how past behaviours or events influence your response to a current situation will help you cultivate readiness. It’s not that you can’t use the past and learn from it; it’s that you don’t allow it to define your response today.
3. Challenge your assumptions (as a leader or an employee) and actively listen to explore another point of view.
Every human has the innate ability to quickly (in seconds), effortlessly, and below our level of awareness perceive, interpret and react to a situation or the actions of another person. And we do it all the time. For example, you see someone walking toward your office and interpret the look on their face as anger. Then before they have said anything, you hardwired your interpretation with words, e.g., he’s always complaining, what’s wrong now.
To create a culture of readiness, you need to recognize and challenge your assumptions to listen actively. Psychiatrist and author of Just Listen, Dr. Mark Goulston, states that we need to rewire our brain to actively listen. He says that the “stuff you think you already know about someone or situation… is, in reality, blocking out what you need to know”.
4. Lead and work from a place of curiosity.
There is rarely only one right way to do anything. Creating a culture of change-readiness requires you to cultivate curiosity throughout the organization. Approaching change with curiosity invites questions and promotes exploring multiple perspectives, enabling you to tap into your organization’s collective intelligence. Research has shown that a group’s level of collective intelligence is a consistent predictor of its success and its ability to complete more complex tasks in the future.
5. Develop and maintain an understanding and the skills to work with the normal human response to change at all levels of the organization.
People don’t resist change. If they did, it would be rare, and it’s not. However, the lack of resistance doesn’t mean you or anyone else will immediately accept every new situation. All of us are hardwired for consistency and predictability and to dislike uncertainty. Therefore we will react to anything that disrupts our usual pattern. But that reaction is not resistance. Leaders with a readiness mindset know how to work with the normal human responses to change and prevent resistance.
6. Create structures that enable people to be actively involved in decision making and the change process
Active involvement is a prerequisite for readiness. In the same way, you have structures, policies, and procedures that actively involve people in your organization’s daily operation; you need systems for involvement during organizational change. Active involvement is not everyone making every decision. You can create a model to assist you to actively involve people at the right level at the right time. To build a culture of change readiness, people need to feel included and work with you to make the new a reality.
A Culture of Change Readiness is Worth the Effort
Creating and enabling a culture of change-readiness is possible and worth the effort. Employees in a change-ready organization view change as necessary. They don’t experience high levels of stress, feel more in control and work with you to make the changes your organization needs a reality.
 Crum, A. (Writer). (2014). Change your Mindset, change the game In: TEDx Traverse City