To change culture, change perceptions

“How do I change the culture within my (part of the) organization?” This is an urgent question many business leaders are asking themselves to survive and thrive in a world in which everything is changing constantly.

Culture changes only when people do things differently, which is typically easier said than done.

When leaders or leadership teams recognize the need for change and develop ideas that will help move the organization forward and prosper, it is often implicitly assumed that others recognize it too and appreciate the worth of the new ideas. In reality, a few might, but many typically don’t.

New ideas are often presented like an answer to a question which others in the organization haven’t asked themselves yet. Hence, new ideas are frequently communicated like products you don’t care for in TV commercials that disrupt your TV viewing. Seen from that audience perspective, it is not hard to understand why ideas for change are rejected. However, respond to this with a communication campaign founded on the belief that if you want to drive transformation that you should “start with a bang” and create a “sense of urgency,” and the resistance to transform your ideas into something useful is quickly amplified.

As a leader or leadership team it is easy to assume when faced with resistance that people don’t understand the need for change or recognize the worth of new ideas and that it needs to be explained better. Although that is possible, it is usually not the real problem inhibiting transformational change.

When people are exposed to a new idea, they immediately compare it subconsciously to familiar concepts, beliefs, values, and experiences and attach meaning to it. This is when questions like “What is in it for me?” and “How will this help or hurt me?” are raised. If the answer is unclear or negative, the idea gets immediately rejected. Better safe than sorry. A positive answer, however, doesn’t mean all obstacles are cleared. A more powerful question now gets asked: “How do other people like me respond to an idea like this?”

As humans we have a deep desire to belong, bond with others, and earn the respect and approval of our peers. Accepting new ideas, particularly those that challenge the group’s identity and beliefs, can threaten this desire by upsetting “how things are done around here.” In those instances, people may prefer to choose looking good to those they care about, rather than being correct.

To overcome this immunity to change, you need to look not at what people do but why they do what they do. It is this why, this belief of what is true, but wrong to you, that holds the key to breaking through and accelerating meaningful change. When you identify and understand the why, you can create an immersive experience, e.g., a story, a demonstration, or business simulation, in which people’s feelings about what they believe to be true are challenged and changed. In this way, people find and feel the reasons for change on their own terms, which opens their minds to new ideas that will restore the balance in their world.

When perceptions change, behaviors change and thus culture.

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