Countless change agents and other organizational interventionists fail to achieve desired results because they ignore or are unaware of the need to closely align change strategy with organizational personality. Durk I. Jager, former CEO of Procter & Gamble Co., was clear about his goals when he took office in 1999: shore up overseas operation and grow top brands. These measures would remedy sagging sales and redeem P&G’s image as the leading global marketer of consumer products. However, Jager’s strategy for achieving these goals was perceived as being so abrasive, so discordant with P&G’s personality, that his management team rebelled against him. He was forced to resign in less than two years. Alan G. Lafley, a longtime executive who understood and respected the company’s culture, took office in 2000. Through a combination of wisdom, humility, personal engagement, and a careful alignment of change strategy to corporate personality, Lafley has turned P&G into one of the great corporate success stories of the twenty-first century.
Lauded as the most innovative change agent for corporate culture, Carly Fiorina could not achieve her desired result at Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina had the right idea-turn HP into a more nimble market driver. By many accounts, she did just about everything right except for one thing: she underestimated the power of the HP Way. Even as criticism mounted about her imperial style, intolerance for dissent, finger pointing, swift and harsh measures, and alienation of rank-and-file employees, she proceeded seemingly contumeliously. Consequently, HP’s bottom line worsened under her leadership. Ironically, Mark Hurd, a relatively obscure figure, who replaced Fiorina after she was sacked in 2005, managed to accomplish much of what Fiorina dreamed of-delayer the organization, replace some of the old guard, increase response time to the market, improve financial performance-without encountering the same level of resistance and backlash. Like Lafley, Hurd demonstrates that any degree of change can be achieved by working through existing culture even if the ultimate goal is to replace that culture.
The above high-profile examples illustrate what can happen when there is misalignment at the highest level of an organization. The focus here, however, is on how to address this issue at all levels of the organization, with emphasis on the role of human resource, organization development, and training leaders.
What is organizational personality?
Personality is composed of a person’s innate tendencies, such as left-handedness or introversion, and external influence such as upbringing and experiences. Both influences, natural and learned, shape assumptions, beliefs, interests, and behavior.
Just as every person has a unique personality, the vision, mission, values, beliefs, assumptions, experiences, and attitude of every organization constitute its distinct personality.
Additional information on how organizations learn, act, grow, and ultimately die like living organisms is well documented in the works of such respected business scholars as Arie de Geus, Peter Senge, and William Bridges.
Why is knowing your organization’s personality important?
Strategy and organizational personality alignment has implications for every aspect of business. No culture change, strategic shift, growth plan, or marketing or brand campaign will be optimally successful without it. Leaders at Disney, Southwest Airlines, and Nordstrom, to name a few remarkably successful entities, have a distinct record of being able to leverage their cultures to achieve desired results. They understand that culture enables their success. They therefore spend as much time improving culture as they do ensuring that business strategy remains in sync with it. They know it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve and sustain results that their culture cannot support.
What is your organization’s personality?
One of the mistakes that change leaders make is to assume they understand their organization’s culture. Fekete and Company, an Ohio-based marketing firm, profiled fifty-five companies over a two-year period to determine their personalities. As part of the study, each CEO and his or her management team were asked to individually describe the personality of their organization. In 78 percent of the cases, the CEO saw the organization differently than did his or her management team. The study goes on to show significant differences between perceptions by senior management and the rest of the employees (Discovering and Living a Company’s True Personality, 16types.com).
Hopefully, the gaps in perceptions are not as wide in your organization. The more removed you are from the social milieu of frontline employees and from where tactical assignments are executed, the less you should assume about your organization’s culture.
Change agents will do well to gain a thorough understanding of their organization’s personality. They should invest in a proven approach for gathering this information. Although there are many off-the-shelf corporate personality assessment tools, working with an organization that specializes in collecting and analyzing this information is recommended. These organizations include the aforementioned Fekete & Company, PersonalityTM, Parker LePla, Gartner Consulting, and The Pacific Institute.
Other common mistakes change agents make:
One size fits all. Smart organizations learn from the experimentations and errors of other companies. If another company develops an idea that drastically improves employee or customer satisfaction, why reinvent the wheel?
Change leaders routinely borrow a process or an idea that has been validated elsewhere. They implement it in their organization hook, line, and sinker. The inherent danger in this approach is that it neglects, suppresses, or upsets elements of their culture that are incongruent with the new scheme.
Scantily dressed waitresses are icons of the Hooters brand. They are key to customer satisfaction and have resulted in significant growth for the company. Borrowing this idea, a hospital could serve up scantily dressed nurses. They could have their male counterparts rip off their coats like Chippendale dancers before delivering care. If the suggestions gave you pause, consider the various ideas you might have adamantly pursued in your organization. How many of them caused your employees to recoil? Could you have adapted the idea to your culture?
Strait and narrow. Every trade has its bag of tricks, and the field of organization development is not an exception. Most OD professionals favor experiential learning or learning through action. This promotes self-discovery, enabling learners to acquire skills that will help them elicit from themselves and others solutions to problems. Some HR and OD professionals favor this approach to the exclusion of didactic teaching. On the flip side, traditional trainers might prefer a structured, often lecturesque, method.
Learning is the lifeline of change, and your organization will not change if the learning process is inhibited. If the only way medical students learned about anatomy was to sit in circles and exchange ideas about body parts, they would probably have major limitations as physicians.
Depending on an organization’s personality, one approach or a hybrid of approaches might be the effective way to learn. Change agents must be flexible enough to create or adopt the style necessary to facilitate organizational learning. The catch is that they have to understand their culture well enough to come up with the right style.
Improper tenor. While it might be acceptable to have employees gyrate to some of Aerosmith’s hardest-hitting songs at the beginning of corporate learning sessions at Google, and while most learning activities at the company might end with Zen-like adventures, the same delivery strategy might attract dire consequences at Cerberus Capital.
Google takes great pride in its friendly and egalitarian culture. Influential subcultures-pop, nerd, geek cultures-share the convivial atmosphere. Dress code is as casual as can be, and some employees’ offices are as eccentric and personalized as their former college dorm rooms. Yet the company is remarkably innovative and continues to enjoy high investor, employee, and customer satisfaction. Google’s distinct personality enables it to attract and retain the kind of employee who shares its vision.
On the other hand, Cerberus, a private equity firm, is feared and revered on Wall Street. The company, which recently purchased Chrysler, buys ailing businesses, strips them of excess fat, and turns them into profitable ventures. It currently owns a group of companies that employ more than 250,000 people.
CEO and founder Stephen Feinberg is an intense, hard-driving, but elusive and self-effacing person. Directly employing about three hundred people, his intensity and conservative disposition extend throughout his organization. Some of his senior executives have quit as a result of his labor-intensive do-it-yourself approach. “If anyone at Cerberus has his picture in the paper,” Feinberg joked at a recent business meeting, “we will do more than fire that person. We will kill him. The jail sentence will be worth it” (Conde Nast Portfolio, September 2007). Never mind that the name Cerberus was borrowed from the mythologic three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades. Unlike Google, dress code is formal and office décor is unusually bare bones. Yet many of Cerberus’s employees thrive in this environment and the company has consistently outperformed the competition.
For all the organizations in between, an overly eccentric or radical activity can be a distraction. It can erode the integrity of the leader as it smacks of personal knowledge deficit or a lack of understanding of or disregard for the culture.
Aggressiveness. In the movie The Mask of Zorro, a drunk and angry Antonio Banderas charged toward his archenemy, a trained and heartless soldier, to avenge his brother’s death. His mentor, Anthony Hopkins, managed to restrain him. In the intervening conversation, Hopkins gave him these words of wisdom: “You would have fought very bravely and died very quickly.”
Unrelenting resolve, energy, passion, patience, and focus are critical strengths for change leaders. However, when combined with an aggressive, abrasive, or dismissive attitude, particularly in the pursuit of an initiative that clashes with existing culture, spectacular failure often results. Even when behavior is not abrasive, “irrational exuberance” (apologies to Alan Greenspan) or ungrounded optimism will produce a similar outcome.
Change does not always have to produce alienation, and massive change does not have to equal massive alienation.
Asphyxiation. This refers to a change strategy that lacks input from the employee population that will be impacted. Typically, an individual or a small group of leaders, sort of an oligarchy, initiates change, determines the critical aspects, and plans the execution. Throughout the implementation phase, they stay true to their original plan, making adjustments usually only when there are adverse financial implications. Such cocooned leaders breathe their own air and, if the change process lasts long enough, will run out of oxygen.
Maintaining the alignment between change strategy and corporate personality is a dynamic process. Change leaders who wish to succeed will seek input from the appropriate constituents before decisions about change are finalized. They will constantly monitor feedback and results from ongoing change and adjust strategy accordingly.
Babel. This is what happens when organizational interventionists try a series of approaches in quick succession or blitz an organization with multiple interventions without achieving the desired culture change. This creates a state of perpetual, confusing motion that inhibits deep commitment and fosters adaptations that detract from strategy.
Often, Babel is evidence of poor planning in the initial phase of a change process. Instead of fishing for solutions to salvage a failed strategy, acknowledge your reality and return to the drawing board.
A dreadful consequence
Perhaps the most insidious and, ironically, oft-ignored consequence of a misaligned change strategy is the feeling of disrespect it creates among rank-and-file employees.
When employees who have firsthand information are not asked for input, or when their input is neglected, when their past efforts are abruptly discarded, when new imperatives contradict existing norms without adequate preparatory explanation, when implementation methods violate common practice without warning, when change leaders exhibit a lack of understanding of existing culture, when they display insensitivity in the amount of change being demanded of workers, and when calls for reevaluation are rejected and dissenters are chastised, an organization sets itself up to experience the consequences of disrespecting its workforce.
Disrespect for workers engenders apathy, resistance, burnout, low productivity, and high turnover. A study conducted by Sigal Barsade, Wharton management professor, concluded that “organizational respect influences burn out above and beyond the effects of job demands and negative affectivity.” Stated differently, when employees feel disrespected, they tend to experience higher levels of burnout. The study also found that productivity decreased and turnover increased when employees felt their complaints about “negative” change were met with inertia. (More Than Job Demands or Personality, Lack of Organizational Respect Fuels Employee Burnout, Wharton School Publishing, December 8, 2006.) These findings are consistent with the experiences at P&G and HP under the reigns of Jager and Fiorina respectively.
How do you create alignment?
Before you create a change strategy, first understand your organization’s personality. Instead of going with your hunch, assumption, personal experience, or aspirations for your company, conduct an objective culture assessment. This information is worth its weight in gold.
Relentless innovation and improvement are indispensable prerequisites for success in today’s business climate. This translates into rapid and continuous change. Thus, organizations must find ways to accelerate corporate metabolism. To achieve this goal, locate and tackle aspects of your culture that inhibit the desired pace and magnitude of change.
With the exception of situations posing immediate or significant risks, change, no matter how massive, does not have to occur in a draconian or disrespectful manner. Even when they cannot alter the outcome, speak with impacted employees about your idea for change and the rationale behind it. This dialogue should occur before the decision for change is finalized. This action demonstrates that you care for your workers as human beings, respect their intelligence, and value their membership in your organization. A patient who is diagnosed with a malignancy might not have a choice about removing the tumor if he wants to live. However, he should have the opportunity to consider several options-surgical and non-surgical-for eliminating the disease. If the patient settled for a non-surgical option, he could evaluate a range of drugs for side effects and choose the most suitable one. By rubbing minds with your workers, you stand a better chance of picking the most effective approach for achieving your goal.
Even when you are confident you understand your organization’s tolerance level, keep your hand on its pulse throughout the change process. Just as you would observe emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness in a person, look for similar signs in the organization’s climate once the change process begins. Addressing these symptoms early can prevent them from degenerating into more pernicious maladies such as distrust, apathy, and disloyalty.
Properly timing the introduction of your initiatives or interventions demonstrates your attentiveness to the stress level of your workforce. No matter how industrious and committed your employees might be, you will be doing your organization a disservice by pushing them beyond their breaking point.
As a physician friend once remarked, all blood is red, but not all blood is good for everyone. Not every change strategy, design, delivery method, or activity is right for your organization. Your ability to partner with your coworkers to discern the best approach is the essence of your role as a change agent.