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In the book, I talk about some of the written but mostly unwritten corporate survival rules. With summer approaching, more than likely, you know someone who is graduating from college and heading into the workforce for the first time. Maybe your son or niece has landed an internship or will be working part-time over the summer. Maybe you or someone you know is re-entering the workforce after a long break. And as always, if you have comments, stories, or feedback on the book — feel free to leave me a comment here or on the Kindle site or just shoot me an e-mail at Phil midlifeupswing.

But doing the reverse is very difficult; you cannot infer the assumptions just from observing the behavior. The implications of this way of thinking about culture are profound. For one thing, you begin to realize that culture is so stable and difficult to change because it represents the accumulated learning of a group — the ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving the world that have made the group successful.

For another thing, you realize that the important parts of culture are essentially invisible. Members of the organization cannot tell you what their culture is, any more than fish could tell you what water is.


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Furthermore, you begin to realize that there is no right or wrong culture, except in relation to what the organization is trying to do and what the environment in which it is operating allows. In some markets and with some technologies, teamwork and employee empowerment are essential and the only way the organization can continue to succeed.

In other market environments or with other technologies, tight discipline and highly structured relationships are the prerequisites to success. How to Assess Your Culture. Culture assessment comes into play when an organization identifies problems in how it operates or as a part of a strategic redirection relating to mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, partnerships, or other collaborations in which more than one culture will be involved.

The potential insights that culture can bring to you will occur only when you discover that some problem you are trying to solve or some change that you are trying to make depends on cultural forces operating within you and within your organization. But how should you proceed to do a culture assessment?

Remember that cultural assumptions are shared, tacit, and out of awareness. This does not mean that they are repressed or unavailable. If you want to access your organization's culture, bring together a group of employees who represent the parts of the organization that may be most involved with solving the business problem that is motivating this exercise.

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Bring in a facilitator who does not belong to the group that is doing the exercise. The group of 10 to 15 should be people who cut across the levels and functions that are most likely to care about the business problem you are trying to work on. Here are the steps to assess your culture:. Now that you understand something of the process of cultural assessment, you are ready to think about how to build, evolve, enhance, or maybe even change your culture.

Cultural Learning, Unlearning, and Transformative Change. In order to understand the dynamics of culture, it is necessary to grasp a general model of learning and change, and then comprehend how that model applies to culture formation in new organizations, culture evolution as those organizations grow, and, finally, change and destruction of cultural elements as organizations age and become dysfunctional. We will begin with a discussion of learning and change theory in general. The fundamental reason why people sometimes "resist change" is that the new behavior to be learned requires some unlearning that they may be unwilling or unable to do.

Adult learning is, therefore, fundamentally different from childhood learning, where everything learned is new. A model of learning and change that works for organizational employees must take into account resistance to change and the reasons for it. Resistance to change applies especially to cultural assumptions because they provide meaning, predictability, and security to its members.

If a culture change program is announced, discomfort and anxiety will be the immediate result because organization members will realize that they may have to give up some beliefs, attitudes, values, and assumptions — as well as to learn some new ones.


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One basic principle of adult learning is that we are at all times in a state of "quasi-stationary equilibrium," and that we are always trying to stabilize our emotional and cognitive state, which is perpetually bombarded by new external and internal stimuli that have the potential for upsetting the equilibrium.

Many of these stimuli can be thought of as "driving forces" that push us toward something new, but we also generate "restraining forces" that keep us at the present state.

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Learning or change takes place when the driving forces are greater than the restraining forces. This model of learning is best understood from the perspective of a manager trying to produce change, and can be viewed as consisting of three stages, as follows:. Stage 1. Creating the motivation to change. This can be done in three ways:. Stage 2. New concepts, new meanings for old concepts, and new standards for judgment. This can be achieved in two ways:. Stage 3, Refreezing. Internalizing new concepts, meanings, and standards. Refreezing can be done in two ways:.

Because humans avoid unpredictability and uncertainty, the basic argument for adult learning is that we need some new stimulus to upset the equilibrium. The best way to think about such a stimulus is as "disconfirmation;" something is perceived or felt that is not expected and that upsets some of our beliefs or assumptions. Members of the organization can experience disconfirming forces directly, or they can be articulated by someone in the organization, such as the CEO, a whistleblower, or a functional manager whose job it is to track certain indicators.

Disconfirming information can involve any or all of the following categories:. If the data get through your denial and defensiveness, disconfirmation creates "survival anxiety" — something bad will happen if you don't change — or "guilt" — as you realize that you are not achieving your own ideals or goals.

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You begin to recognize the need to change, the need to give up some old habits and ways of thinking, and the necessity of learning new habits and ways of thinking. But at the moment you accept the need to change, you also realize that the new behavior that may be required of you may be difficult to learn, and the new beliefs or values may be difficult to accept. This discomfort is "learning anxiety. These fears include:.

How do you get past the resistance to change? Two principles come into play:. The implementation of Principle Two means that the change process creates "psychological safety" — the sense that it is safe to abandon your old behavior and attempt to learn the new behavior. The learner needs reassurance that the pain of unlearning and relearning will be possible, worthwhile, and, most important, will be supported by the provision of whatever time and other resources are needed to facilitate the new learning.

How do you create psychological safety for organizational members who are undergoing change and learning? This involves a number of steps, and they must be taken almost simultaneously.

Creating psychological safety requires eight things:. A change program that involves unlearning and relearning requires that all eight of the above conditions be met. However, in many change programs, senior management asks employees to make a major cognitive shift that they may not be able to make.


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  6. For example, when senior management announces that employees should become more involved and empowered, they are asking both employees and supervisors to shift their whole cognitive frames of reference for what it means to be an employee or a supervisor. Such cognitive shifts are possible if the organization manages to create enough psychological safety — especially if it involves the people who are the targets of change in the learning process.

    Then the learning takes place in one of two ways:. For all of this to happen, the desired new behavior must be clearly defined, and the learner must discover that the new behavior leads to desirable outcomes. The final step in any transformative change process is "refreezing. If the behavior fits the rest of the learner's personality and is aligned with the expectations of important others in the learner's work and social environment, it becomes a stable part of the person, and eventually of the group.

    Now that we've looked at learning and change theory in general, we can apply it to organizations at various growth stages. Culture Change in Start-Up Companies. The most salient cultural characteristic of young organizations is that they are the creation of founders and founding families. The personal beliefs, assumptions, and values of the entrepreneur or founder are imposed on the people he or she hires, and — if the organization is successful — they come to be shared, seen as correct, and eventually taken for granted. At this stage, culture is the organization's primary asset, but it is repeatedly tested.

    If the organization succeeds, the culture grows stronger.

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    If the organization fails, the founders are likely to be thrown out and their assumptions will be challenged and probably abandoned. During the growth phase, if the basic criteria of success are met, the organization will be very resistant to disconfirming forces. The need for a lot of unlearning in a young organization is limited by the success of the founder in selecting employees who already have the beliefs, values, and assumptions that the founder holds.

    Founders and leaders impose their assumptions and values in a number of ways, including:. By far, the most important of these mechanisms is the leader's own behavior. When it comes to culture creation and embedding, "walking the talk" has special significance in that new members pay far more attention to the walk.

    How, then, does culture evolve in a successful growing organization? Several change processes can be identified. If the organization continues to be successful and if the founder is around for a long time, the culture evolves in small increments by continuing to assimilate what works best over the years.

    These mechanisms cause organizations within varied industries to develop distinct industry cultures. But it is "natural" evolution because it is necessary adaptation to the realities that the organization encounters. If you think of culture as a mechanism for avoiding the anxiety that comes with unpredictability, you can help members of the organization by making explicit the major cultural themes and elements. If you gain insight into what your shared assumptions are, there is a better chance of evaluating them to determine how functional they continue to be as the environment around you changes.

    The process for assessing your culture that we discussed earlier typically produces a level of cultural insight that allows a group to decide the direction of its future evolution. The key roles of the leader in this process are to recognize the need for such an intervention, and to manage the internal assessment process. The leader in these situations becomes a counselor, coach, or process consultant to guide the organization's evolution. Cultural evolution can then be integrated into the overall planning process. How can a young organization so highly committed to its identity make such changes?

    Clearly, the first condition is that key leaders in the organization notice the disconfirming information. Because of their personalities or life experiences, or the subculture in which their careers developed, hybrids are employees or managers who hold assumptions that are different from those at the core, and thus can move the organization gradually into new ways of thinking and acting. If such managers are put into key positions, they often elicit a feeling from others on the order of "We don't like what he or she is doing in the way of changing the place, but at least he or she is one of us.

    As the new organization grows and ages, strong subunits arise based on function, geography, markets, or products, and these subunits have to survive in their external environments. In adapting to these external environments, they evolve beliefs and assumptions that are different from the core assumptions of the founder.

    For example, the CEO subculture is out of sync with the engineering subculture because of the latter's desire to build the most elegant system, which is usually too costly. The degree to which these occupational subcultures are aligned with each other is a major determinant of how well the organization as a whole functions. Each of these subcultures is necessary for the effectiveness of the organization, so they must be aligned with each other.

    Evolution, in this case, requires the nurturing of each of these subcultures. Your job as a cultural change agent in a young organization is to develop meetings and events in which enough mutual understanding can arise among them to enable each to flourish and grow. Culture Dynamics in the Mature Company. Whereas culture was a necessary glue in the period of growth, the most important elements of the culture are now deeply embedded in the structure and major processes of the organization. The culture is now taken for granted and largely invisible.

    The only elements that are likely to be conscious are the credos, dominant espoused values, company slogans, written charters, and other public pronouncements of what the company wants to be and claims to stand for — its philosophy and ideology. The culture change mechanisms described in the previous section all continue to operate in mid-life. But because culture is now more embedded, elements of the culture that are potentially dysfunctional require change processes that have to be more transformative than evolutionary.

    The actual change activities in a managed change program will vary according to the situation, but the process starts with senior management experiencing enough disconfirmation to realize that a change process must be launched. Senior management also must realize that, if elements of the culture may require change, a parallel learning system must be created in which some new assumptions are learned and tested. The essence of this concept is that it is often too painful for everyone in the organization to give up a shared assumption in favor of an unknown substitute or to learn some new and untested behavior.

    So part of the organization must expose itself to new ways of thinking so that it can be objective about the strengths and weaknesses of the existing cultural elements and examine how these will aid or hinder the changes to be made. If some part of the organization can learn an alternative way of behaving and thinking, and if the alternative can be shown to work, then there is less anxiety as the alternative is gradually introduced into the main part of the organization.

    The group that functions as the parallel structure may or may not actually design and implement the change programs that will be needed. Often, it becomes the "steering committee" with accountability and oversight, but the change team is usually a different group or subunit of a department that has to take on the actual work of designing and implementing the day-to-day assessment and change activities.

    These activities are best viewed as five necessary steps that have to be taken for the overall change to succeed. Step 1. Why Change? The first step is to determine whether change is, in fact, necessary and feasible. Disconfirmation has created survival anxiety or guilt, leading to a lot of turmoil and proposed action, new visions, and calls for solutions. It is important for the change team to ensure that the disconfirming data are valid and that the launching of a change program actually makes sense.

    Step 2. What Is the Ideal Future State? If a change is needed and is deemed possible, the next step is to define the ideal future state. Leaders in the organization may have already articulated this, but the change team must reassess the concept and ensure that the new vision is clear. Steps 3 and 4.

    Assessing the Present State and Planning.

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    Once the ideal state is well understood, the change team must diagnose and assess the present state of the system to identify the gaps between the ideal future and the present. At this point, the change process also moves from analysis to concrete planning. For each of the gaps and barriers to achieving the vision, specific plans must now be made for what to do to get from the present to the future. Step 5. Managing the Transition. For every behavior that has been identified as the future ideal, the team should take the present behavior and ask: "What 'existing forces' are driving the current organization toward the future behavior we want?

    On the right side of the paper can be listed the "restraining forces" that prevent the behavior from occurring. Movement toward the new way of working is then produced by changing the balance in the force field, either by increasing the driving forces or reducing the restraining forces.

    No change will occur unless the driving forces the survival anxiety are greater than the restraining forces the learning anxiety. The change team then needs to examine each set of forces to determine what to focus the change program on in terms of access, feasibility, cost, and desirability. This means involving the learner and providing training, role models, resources, and rewards and incentives.

    The mid-life culture change process involves many steps and is, in a sense, never finished. As some processes are institutionalized and become stable, other sources of disconfirmation arise that launch new change initiatives. As some elements of the culture change, others are reinforced. The triggers for mid-life culture change will be highly variable for different organizations, but the mechanism by which the culture will evolve will always be some form of the planned change program that has been described — the creation of a parallel system, a functioning change team, and a five-step change process.

    Mid-Life Crisis and Potential Decline. We will have to confront the question of what happens when, with growth and age, strong core assumptions of the corporate culture become dysfunctional. Continued success creates strongly-held shared assumptions, and thus a strong corporate culture core. If the internal and external environments remain stable, this continues to be an advantage.

    Several circumstances can cause this problem:. It takes unusually strong disconfirming forces to shake this emotional resistance and denial. Often it is only outside forces from economic downturns, scandals, legal actions, or board activity that break through and start a change process. In a situation in which growth has slowed and decline is imminent, there are basically only two mechanisms of changing core cultural assumptions:. In either case, strong new change managers are needed to unfreeze the organization and launch the change programs.

    The human cost is always high, as the new managers discover that changing core cultural assumptions can only be accomplished quickly by forcing out the people who are the carriers of the old core assumptions. There is no formula or program for this level of culture change. If culture change as described in the last section does not produce the business results that are needed, then change leaders have to seek more drastic measures.