Understanding organizational culture - Part III of III

BY EDGAR H. SCHEIN - 2016-08-19

Organizational culture is powerful, and changing it is difficult. Because people in the organization are carefully selected based on their compliance with the existing culture, and they are further indoctrinated. And culture exerts itself through the actions and thinking of thousands of people. To change culture one needs to change all these people. Once a particular culture is set, it often develops further without conscious intent or knowledge. It becomes difficult to either challenge or discuss it. In order to change a cultural unit it is necessary to identify the group that is the culture’s creator, host, or owner. Systems thinking helps in identifying these and facilitates the change of culture.

Changing Culture by changing Mental Models

One way to change organizational culture is to change the mental models of employees in the organization. Organizational culture is significantly influenced by the mental models the employees in the organization hold. Mental models are the beliefs, images, and stories which people carry in their minds about other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world. Mental models determine how people see the world. They are invaluable for day-to-day living. But all mental models are flawed in some or other way. When employees are forming their mental models, their past bias is already influencing the way this happens. From the beginning, mental models are only approximations of reality. They do not represent the situation exactly as it is.

Mental models play a key role in decision making in organizations. Some mental models might cause behavior that is not in the best interests of the either the employees or the organization. For example, assume that “the organization exist to make money” is the mental model held by a majority of employees in an organization. This mental model might be useful in the short-term, but it could be dangerous in the long-term. Once the organization becomes reasonably successful, people get complacent and the organization starts ignoring customers and competition. Mental models such as these have to be changed. But the problem is that mental models are hard to identify. Identifying mental models needs reflection on one’s thinking. Once employees become aware of how they think, they can identify their mental models, and then move to change the organizational culture if necessary.

Experiment conducted by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957 show that people change their mind-sets only when they see the purpose of changing. When they are convinced about the purpose, they are more ready to change and serve the intended purpose. People are comfortable with change and will be enthusiastic about changing their mental models when they understand their role, and are satisfied about the importance of their role in the context of organizational change. So any leader attending to change culture has to first understand, thoroughly, why he is doing what he is doing, and then he must explain it to the others in the organization.

Changing culture does not merely mean going beyond the existing culture. It also involves creating new beliefs, attitudes, and systems. Towards this end, organizations can engage in building mental models. That is what Jack Welch did at general Electric.

Changing beliefs

The beliefs that influence specific behaviors needs to be changed. First one has to understand how these beliefs are formed. People form beliefs relating to work during training, or during their experiences in the organization , or when they hear inside or outside stories on the company’s prospects, or when they learn of their leaders’ perspectives when they hear them or see them doing something.

People change only when they see new evidence that proves that their old beliefs are false. This is what leaders are supported to do. They should communicate as much as possible using the available new evidence.

Changing culture is possible only when people who are part of the culture become aware of their beliefs and behaviors. Dick brown, the CEO of EDS between 1998 and 2003, tried to change his organization’s culture by focusing on beliefs and behaviors in the organization. In a senior leadership meeting in January 2000, he asked his people to try to state the beliefs that were needed to take the organization forward at that point. They came up with the following list.

The new EDS beliefs became the agenda for attitude change among all EDS leaders.

Bringing a new set of beliefs and practices into the culture of an organization can be  difficult, even when the beliefs and practices are consistent with the core of the culture. Imagine  how difficult it would be to bring in practices that are contrary to the existing culture.

B.F Skinners theories highlight the importance of conditioning and positive reinforcement in nurturing the desired behavior. Organizational designers must design reporting structures, management and operating processes, and measurement procedures in such a way that they reinforce the desired culture. If there is no reinforcement of the company’s new culture, employees will not adopt the desired culture all the time.

Organizations often make the mistake of expecting their employees to change their culture without providing them the skills required to do so. Employees generally encounter problems in adapting general guidelines to their specific situations. To transform themselves, the first thing employees need is time. They rarely get sufficient time to change their behavior. David Kolb demonstrated in the 1980s that adults cannot learn to behave in a desirable way just by listening to instructions.

In case you missed it, my last post was Kaizen: Understanding organizational culture - Part II of III

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