by Jo Geraghty and Derek Bishop

Overcoming obstacles to culture change

When obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal; you do not change your decision to get there.

Zig Ziglar

Changing ‘the way we do things’, transforming attitudes and behaviours won’t be easy. Even with key employees from all levels of the organisation on board there will still be some resistance to change. Ignoring potential resistance is the equivalent of sleepwalking into disaster. To borrow a quote from The Hobbit, ‘It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.’

Obstacles to change come in many and varied forms, but can generally be split into two distinct categories: the open and the covert. Open obstacles are, by their nature, more obvious. They include elements which really should have been thought about and covered in the initial design phase. Left unchecked, these can severely impair the implementation process but, because they are in the open, they are easier to anticipate and deal with. Covert obstacles are more insidious. While they may be anticipated, because they tend to work below the surface, they can have already caused a lot of damage by the time they come to light.

Whether open or covert, the key to overcoming obstacles is to anticipate, plan and prepare. We’ve included some of the most common obstacles below, but every industry and every sector will have their own set of challenges.

Open obstacles

Open obstacles include the following

  • Lack of planning

    Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

    Abraham Lincoln

    No matter how impatient you are to get on and do ‘stuff’, when you are looking to create change, unless you plan and prepare then you are only going to end up in failure. Don’t procrastinate, but do take time to plan and anticipate and lay the groundwork.

  • Insufficient support from the leadership team

    On the face of it this is a barrier which should never occur, as it is the leadership team which should be driving the culture change. But when the change is handed down to enablers to spread throughout the organisation, it is all too easy for the leadership team to sit back and let it happen, rather than being seen to support and guide the change. Similarly, if the leadership team aren’t seen to ‘be the change’, they can’t hope to persuade others to change.

  • Employee resistance

    ‘We’ve always done it this way’; ‘we have to do it this way because of X’;’ I can’t see the point of Y’... Even when employees are not happy or engaged in their work, the thought of change is always a little scary. There will be disbelief that the leadership are prepared to change, and there will be uncertainty about new tasks, new levels of empowerment or new reporting lines. Here again, preparation is all. Drawing the implementation team from every level of the organisation will help, but the key is in mapping out all of the expected changes and making sure that the HR team are fully geared up to provide any support necessary. This may include counselling, training or fresh induction processes.

  • Third party challenges

    When something as intrinsic to the organisation as culture change is under review, it is all too easy to concentrate on purely internal metrics. But when departmental reorganisations, changed customer focus and other elements come into play, external factors are ignored at your peril. In The cultural audit section, we suggested bringing third parties into the review process. Involving these third parties in defining and managing the change can help to avoid scenarios such as a reorganisation resulting in the breaching of confidentiality firewalls, not meeting regulatory best practice guidelines or expecting a change for which suppliers are not prepared.

  • Customer resistance

    Even though a cultural re-setting should result in improved levels of customer service, there are still going to be some customers who are resistant to the idea of change. ‘I’ve always spoken to this person’; ‘I’ve always logged in like that’, ‘I’ve always found what I want on Y page of your site’ — all these objections and more can result in loss of custom or dissatisfaction being posted on social media sites. The solution is in the planning. Identifying key customers and involving them in the change, arranging for personal hand-overs, and providing clear and simple information about changes will all make a huge difference to the way in which customers view the changes.

  • Inertia

    Once all of the hard work, the assessments, the planning, the training and the grand announcements are over, it is all too easy to let the momentum slip, allowing inertia to take over. Apart from keeping the implementation team alive and working long after common sense says it should be disbanded, the best way of overcoming inertia is to ensure that a sequence of ‘quick wins’ are planned into the implementation. Quick wins not only help to keep momentum, they also act as a foil to those employees who are resistant to the idea of change.

Covert obstacles

Covert obstacles to change include

  • Seeming acceptance, but then sliding back into the old ways
  • A whispering campaign against the new regime
  • Disinformation and rumour.

In all of these cases, the key is to be aware and to stamp hard on any dissent. In some cases, you may have no option but to accept that certain individuals are just not going to step up to the new way of working, in which case they will have to go. But in most instances, if you take the time to explain, to engage and to demonstrate the benefits, you will win over hearts and minds.