To have long-term viability and growth potential, businesses must be living, organic beings, able to adjust and adapt as the world around them change. Successful business owners know this and put a great stock in proactive approaches and management strategies that keep the operation from being “stuck in the mud,” organizationally speaking.

And yet, sometimes those very approaches and strategies can become the biggest impediments to success.

For example, suppose your company is strongly siloed, with each manager protecting his or her turf. You’ve decided to make it less compartmentalized and more interdepartmental. Sounds like a good idea, since you now that reducing the silo structure can lead to increased productivity, improved communication and aligned priorities.

You call together your department managers and C-suite people and lay out your plan. Then you sit back and wait for an enthusiastic embrace of the idea.

Depending on how long your people have been in their current roles, you might still be waiting.

While your focus was on making your business stronger and more competitive by embracing change, they might be looking at it through an entirely different lens: the “How will this change who I am in the business?” which leads to another a more philosophical question: “How will this change who I am?”

For many people, who they are at work and who they are in life are deeply intertwined. If they are “the boss” of their department (even if that department consists of only three other people), they have a strong sense of being in control and having a certain amount of power and autonomy. Change that role—for example, by making them part of a team of managers—and they may feel their identity is in danger.

Their response? To fight back overtly or covertly, undermining the new plans and policies, becoming combative or seeking a new position where they can retain their identity.

Or maybe your goal is to create a more friendly, comfortable workplace: a dress code a little more relaxed, communication a little less formal. No more “Mr.” and “Ms.” titles, but a “first name only” rule, you decide.

Who can argue with that? People who prefer a more hierarchical standard in the corporate world and perceive being called “Jill” rather than “Ms. Brown” as a sign of disrespect.

Addressing the Identity Issue

You could, of course, enforce the change you desire, essentially taking the “It’s my way or the highway” approach. But while it’s within your right as the CEO, it might not be in the company’s best interest. Presumably, the people you have in management are there because they are good at what they do. In the past, they have achieved the goals and objectives you set out to keep the business growing.

Alienating them would be counter-productive.

Also, keep in mind that those corporate-culture changes you are implementing will, in a sense, probably impact them far more than you. You are, after all, the one making them happen, which means that to a large extent, your identity is still intact.

They, on the other hand, have to accede to your new policies or start re-tooling their résumés.

So how can you create change without creating chaos?

#1: Make it a collaborative change. It’s not enough to tell your people the change you want. You need to give them a solid reason for getting on board, as well as providing them with the opportunity to voice their objections or concerns.

Begin the process by looking at your management team as individuals, not as a group, wrote Anna Johansson in “Turning the Ship Around: A Guide to Changing Workplace Culture” on, “It’s important to start with the individuals in the company and move from there. After all, if the people within an organization don’t change, the company itself can never change.”

Hold a strategy session where you put forth your overall goal—for example, establishing a teamwork atmosphere—and then solicit input on how to create that. This approach has two benefits: your managers and executives have more ownership with the plan if they have contributed to it and you will gain better insights into what matters to each person and how that can be accommodated while still moving forward. However, this requires strong communication skills as well as a willingness to consider other viewpoints.

#2: Change the story you tell. This is a strategy proposed by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review article, “A Good Way to Change a Corporate Culture.”

You can say how you want the culture to change, but are you “walking the talk?” For example, you want a friendlier, more personal atmosphere—yet staff and management must still address you as “Mr. Smith.” You want a less discrete operation, yet you still hold meetings separately with each department head.

Those are the “stories” that continue to define and direct your operation—not what you say you want the future to be.

As Bregman wrote, to change the culture, you need to change the stories. “For a while there will be a disconnect between the new stories and the entrenched systems promoting the old culture. And that disconnect will create tension… that can be harnessed to create mechanisms to support the new stories.”

#3: Let an outsider lead the way. But what if, despite your best efforts, your plans and your management team’s response are still on a collision course? Then it might be time to bring in a “storyteller”: a management consultant to act as an objective third party.

In that capacity, the consultant will identify the root cause of the disconnect: the stories that you are telling as well as the stories the individual members of the management team tell to themselves. Then he will develop a new storyline that weaves them all together while still acknowledging the individual identities that have served your team members in the past.

Changing the corporate culture won’t happen overnight. As a Harvard Business Review article noted, “you can’t trade your company’s culture in as if it were a used car.” It requires that the people are able to get onboard with the corporate culture change without feeling that, in the process, they are losing their own identity and sense of self.


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