When Changing the Culture: Speak Softly but Definitely Carry a Big Stick!

March 9, 2017
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” ---Peter Drucker.

Silos are alive and well in most organizations. These divides become readily apparent when you undertake large projects or your organization is merging with another recently acquired organization. Each silo and to a greater extent, each organization has its own culture. Good, bad, or indifferent disparate cultures will clash. Knowing when to nudge and went to hammer is key to resolving culture issues in order to move forward with your strategy.

Leadership is the art of influencing and directing. But keep in mind that the people that you’re trying to influence and direct are adults, and adults learn differently. The rule is: treat everyone as an adult, until they prove otherwise.

Being confrontational and overbearing are traits that are often counterproductive for teambuilding. However, you may have a dysfunctional member of your staff or an employee that feels empowered and irreplaceable to the point that they become a stumbling block to progress. In these cases you may be forced to create a significant emotional event with this person to change their behavior and begin to change the culture of that silo or organization.

I am a firm believer of the stages of team formation; forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. It’s actually sometimes fun to watch. But when you have a member that becomes obstructive and keeps the team in the storming mode, then that’s when you have to step in and do something radical.

  1. Callout the behavior: Sometimes it’s just enough to make the person aware that they are obstructing the efforts of the team and their behavior is no longer tolerated. Believe it or not, they may not even be aware of it. They may be so use to operating in this mode and having people enable their behavior to the point that it becomes acceptable around them.
  2. Do not engage in email battles: When you have someone dig their heels and want to make a stand, they resort to lengthy emails with multiple addressees. Don’t fall for the trap. Replying to all and attempting to address all of their concerns will only result in another reply with more lengthy information. Dysfunctional employees like to hide behind email and quickly change their tone when you’re with them face-to-face. The best way to avoid an email battle is to simply respond with a “thank you,” and then schedule a face-to-face (or virtual) meeting with them and their direct supervisor.
  3. Give them enough rope. As the team culture begins to change and the storming starts to die down this may be enough for the difficult team member to start changing. However if this is not the case, then you may have to resort to calling out their functional area on a status report or executive meeting as a risk factor for accomplishing milestones.

During a large implementation that involved over 1000 users across two states, efforts were consistently hampered by one interface analyst that kept challenging the application analysts. They always had a reason why it couldn’t be done, or how their current processes would not allow for whatever change that needed to be implemented. During a critical status call the interface analysts manipulated the entire time talking about all the problems that the project was creating. There were probably 15 people on the call and I allowed the analyst to get everything off their chest. Then I asked a simple question, “Are you done?” Then I went on to inform everyone on the call that as of that minute the project status was red, we would not be going live on the planned date because of the interface team. That the following day the executive steering committee will be getting a status report to that effect and we will have to regroup with the executive team to figure out the financial implications of the delay. There was a long period of silence until the interface analysts came back on and stated that before I placed the project in the red status, they might be able to resolve the issues by the next day.

I am not sure why this particular interface analyst felt empowered or enabled to get away with the behavior that they were used to. But I do know that once the line was drawn it was never crossed again, issues were resolved and the project was completed on schedule.

There is a hidden cost associated with people that want to avoid change and continue to keep their organizational culture alive. While facilitating the merge of two hospitals, I was asked to sit in a Compliance reorganization meeting. Apparently they were having a hard time moving forward and establishing joint policies and procedures. It was an early meeting so I had my coffee in hand. The introductions were lengthy in part because most were lawyers, some physicians and a few IT security people. We did not get past the first agenda item before an argument ensued between two of the members. As I sipped my coffee I looked at the meeting facilitator to see if they were going to do anything. The argument continued and got more heated. I started looking around the room and trying to figure out what each person earned an hour. As you can imagine with all the lawyers and physicians my mental estimate of the cost of the meeting was substantial. I guess 20 minutes is a good breakpoint, at least it was for me. Because I said, “Take it outside.” I then told them I was serious. That I would go to a separate office with them and facilitate whatever issues they had with one another and hopefully resolve them to the point that both of them can move forward. But that we could not continue to waste everyone’s time with a petty argument. I also told them what I estimated the cost of the meeting to be (including my cost) and that there was an expectation from the executive leadership that the group submit their recommendations on time. Once both members agreed that they really didn’t want to leave the conference room, we went on to establish meeting rules and an agreement on who was really facilitating the meeting.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
---Peter Drucker.

Most people that create barriers for change are actually scared. They feel that somehow they will lose control or that it may jeopardize their job. These are significant stressful motivators to keep them angry and obstructing anything you may want to accomplish. Changing an existing culture, at any level, is difficult. Sometimes it is enough to just provide a gentle nudge to get everyone pointed in the same direction. But don’t overlook the other tools that you have available, because sometimes you do have to reach for that stick.

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