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The Fragility of Culture Change

Culture change, whether being done by a manager for a small team or an executive for an entire organization, is fragile. It is why so many of these changes fail - you can do 90% of things right, but if that 10% is critical, it will crumble. Let me share a story.


I worked for a rather large company - you would recognize the name. This company had been struggling for years and decided it needed a culture change (it really did). They brought in a well-known change management org that had a proven, successful model. They spent millions of dollars on the effort. It failed. There wasn't any one reason, but let me share one example that I lived through.


As a director of a team of about 15 people, I took my responsibility seriously (as did many of the directors who were my peers). One aspect of the culture change was a program to build recognition for demonstrating values and constantly reminding people of the values. The program was designed to use pre-printed cards. The idea was that if anyone in the org saw someone demonstrating one of the values, they were to give that person a card with a hand written note describing what they did to earn it. Each employee could display them at their desk or some departments would create a bulletin board where people could hang them up. Some people thought it was a gimmick and somewhat hokey, but it was working. We saw people giving out cards and displaying them.


For those of you who have been following me - it is a classic form of more structured positive feedback.


Trouble started when a new Sr. Director was hired for our group - one that I reported to along with many of my peers. He had been attending meetings and spending a great deal of time getting to know the org and our operations - like any good leader. One day he attended my team staff meeting. In order to model the recognition cards (which we gave out at the beginning of meetings), I gave him one (can't remember the corporate value) to thank him for taking the time to listen to us and learn about what we had done in the past. I wanted my team to see it (again - modeling) and I also wanted him to understand the value of this program to our transformation.


When I gave him the recognition and explained it. He looked at it and said thank you. Then he proceeded to toss the card onto the table and say that he didn't believe in that kind of stuff. He didn't do it in a rude way, he was just expressing his preference. And to be fair, he was an overall good person and very intelligent.


However, the second he did that, I knew the harm. He had essentially dismissed that entire program in front of not only his direct report (me), but skip level reports. He may not have realized it, but he was telling everyone in that room "stop this - I find it silly". Good people and smart employees listen. The cards came down from everyone's desk, no more were handed out (I tried, but people were confused on if they should take them), and the program effectively ground to a halt in our area.


If an individual contributor did this, it would have a much smaller impact. A Sr. Director and it essentially impacted an entire team (and maybe beyond that if the story got out).


Leaders set the tone - good and bad. A manager isn't there to decide if a program is good or bad or stupid. She is there to model the behavior the organization expects. Your behavior, no matter how good intentioned or inadvertent, has significant impact on the team.

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