Organisational Change Management Volume 1

Framework 33 A Conceptual Model for Managed Cultural Change

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This framework looks at how to plan and manage change. It assumes that change is about fixing some problem or achieving a new goal rather than cultural change per se

This includes the psychosocial dynamics of transformative change, ie coercive persuasion, professional education, group dynamics training and management development

All human systems attempt to maintain equilibrium and to maximise their autonomy in relationship to their environment

"...coping, growth, and survival all involve maintaining the integrity of the system interface of a changing environment that is constantly causing varying degrees of disequilibrium. The function of cognitive structures such as concepts, beliefs, attitudes, values, and assumptions is to organise the mass of environmental stimuli, to make sense of them, and to thereby provide sensor predictability"...The set of shared assumptions that develop over time in groups and organisations serve this stabilising and meaning-providing function. The evolution of culture is therefore one of the ways in which a group or organisation preserves its integrity and autonomy, differentiates itself from the environment and other groups, and provides itself an identity......if any part of the core cognitive structure is to change in more than minor incremental ways, the system must first experience enough disequilibrium to force a coping process that goes beyond just reinforcing the assumptions that are already in place..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

The motivation for change to occur requires

"...- enough disconfirming data to cause serious discomfort and disequilibrium

- the connection of the disconfirming data to important goals and ideals, causing anxiety and/or guilt

- enough psychological safety, in a sense of being able to see a possibility of solving the problem and learning something new without the loss of identity or integrity..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Disconfirming information can be economic (sales are down, customer complaints are up, product quality under question, high staff turnover, absenteeism, etc), political, social, or personal. This data can create a state of survival anxiety, ie

"...unless we change, something bad will happen to the individual, the group, and/or the organisation..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Generally curiosity is not enough to motivate people to try something new and to overcome old habits. There needs to be a threat or sense of failure or crisis or dissatisfaction, ie "wake-up call" or "burning platform" before people will be motivated to make changes. Most organisational transformation is started with some form of survival anxiety change

Before looking at the culture of the organisation there is a need to

"...(1) have a clear definition of the operational problem or issue that started the change process and (2) formulate specific new behavioural goals..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Need to understand what degree of cultural elements, such as self-image or group norms, are involved in the problem situation. Furthermore, need to determine whether these cultural elements are helping or hindering the change process

Disconfirmation and survival anxiety are not enough in themselves to motivate change as people can rationalise, repress and/or deny they are occurring. This is sometimes called learning anxiety and can be reduced by the creation of psychological safety, ie making the staff feel safe in learning something new and letting go of the past. An example of this is a visionary leader who can create the psychological safety net required for change to occur

Change involves unlearning something and learning something new. It is hard to "unlearn" the old and learn something new, as what we have learnt has become embedded in various routines, and most likely become part of our personal and group identity

"...the key to understanding resistance to change is to recognise that some behaviour that has become dysfunctional for us may nevertheless be difficult to give up because this might upset group membership or may violate some aspect of an identity..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

An example of staff revising their identity or image is engineering staff in a power plant changing their self-image from being people who kept power and heat on to being responsible stewards of the environment, who prevent and clean spills produced by their vehicles

"...the new rules require them to report incidents that might be embarrassing to their group, and even to report each other if they observe environmentally irresponsible behaviour in fellow workers..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Another example includes computer engineers having to give up their passion for innovation and learn how to design and manufacture computers that are cheaper and less elegant

Cognitive restructuring

"Cognitive redefinition" involves redefining the core concepts of the organisational assumptions and can follow a number of different lines that reflect

- the new learning

- trial and error

- the imitation of role models based on psychological identification with new role model

The mechanism works best when it is clear what the new way of working is to be and concepts to be taught are themselves clear

For example, an organisation that has a lifetime employment policy can face the need to reduce costs including staff and it will form the basis for cognitive redefining about security of employment

Most change processes emphasize the need for behavioural change as a way to lay the groundwork for cognitive redefinition. Behavioural change can be coerced but will not last once the coercive force is removed, unless complete redefinition precedes or accompanies the change

Anxiety (survival vs learning)

The pressure of the need for change will result in staff feeling survival anxiety or guilt. On the other hand, once the need for a change is accepted, staff will express learning anxiety.

" is the interaction of these two anxieties that creates the complex dynamics of change..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Learning anxiety in a combination of several specific fears, ie

- fear of temporary incompetence (involves giving up old ways and being able to master the new ways)

- fear of punishment for incompetence (as it takes time to learn the new ways of thinking and doing things, initially productivity could suffer)

- fear of loss of personal identity (the new ways of thinking and doing things could result in long-term employees feeling uncomfortable)

- fear of loss of group membership (the shared cultural assumption that identifies "who is in" and "who is out" of the group will change; that can result in the group resisting the new ways of thinking and behaving)

Some defensive responses to learning anxiety include

- denial (convince yourself that it will go away, etc)

- scapegoating/"passing the buck" (it is somebody else's problem or fault)

- manoeuvring/bargaining (demanding special compensation to make the effort to change)

Five Principles

1. Survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety

2. Survival anxiety must be reduced rather than increased

3. The change goal must be defined concretely in terms of the specific problem you are trying to fix, not as broad cultural change.

4. Old cultural elements can be destroyed by eliminating the people who carry those elements; the new cultural elements can only be learnt if the new behaviour leads to success and satisfaction

5. Cultural change is always transformative change that requires a period of unlearning that is psychologically painful

More details on the 5 principles

1. Survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety

Increasing the survival anxiety or guilt can simply increase defensiveness to avoid the threat or pain of the learning process

2. Survival anxiety must be reduced rather than increased

The change leader must reduce the learning anxiety by increasing the learner's level of psychological safety; this involves 8 steps that must occur simultaneously

i) A compelling positive vision (staff must believe that the organisation will be better off if they learn the new way of thinking and working. Furthermore, such a vision must be articulated and supported by senior management)

ii) Training (if new knowledge and skills are needed, staff must be provided with the necessary formal and informal training)

iii) Involvement of the learner (each learner will learn in a slightly different way, so it is essential to involve learners in designing their own optimum learning process)

iv) Informal training of relevant groups and teams (so that learners do not feel like deviants, the training and practice should be in groups so that the new norms and assumptions become jointly built)

v) Practice fields/coaches/feedback (learning requires time, resources, valid feedback on performance plus areas where learners can make mistakes without disrupting the organisation)

vi) Positive role models (learners must be able to see new behaviours and attitudes in others who have credibility and with whom the learners can identify)

vii) Support groups in which learning problems can be aired and discussed (frustrations and difficulties in learning need to be shared with staff who are experiencing similar difficulties, so that new ways of dealing with difficulties are jointly developed )

viii) A reward and discipline system plus organisational structures that are consistent with the new ways of thinking and working (the reward and discipline system must support the new direction, ie if going to teams, must reward team performance and penalise aggressive, selfish individualism

Many change projects fail as they do not incorporate the 8 steps for reducing learning anxiety

3. The change goal must be defined concretely in terms of the specific problem you are trying to fix, not as cultural change

It is best to be very clear about the change goals before launching any cultural assessment. On the other hand, whether or not the culture needs to be changed need not necessarily be known before the change program is launched. As the specific goals are identified, it can be determined whether cultural elements would hinder or aid the change.

" of the biggest mistakes that leaders make when they undertake change initiatives is to be vague about their change goals and to assume that cultural change will be needed..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

Furthermore, if a person wants to start a change project, there are 2 important questions to ask, ie

- What do you mean?

- Can you explain your goals without using the word culture?

4. Old cultural elements can be destroyed by eliminating the people who carry those elements, and new cultural elements can only be learnt if the new behaviour leads to success and satisfaction

"...once a culture exists, once an organisation has had some period of success and stability, the culture cannot be changed directly, unless one dismantles the group itself. A leader can compose new ways of doing things, can articulate new goals and means, can change reward and control systems, but none of these changes will produce cultural change unless the new way of doing things actually works better and provides the members with a new set of shared experiences..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

5. Cultural change is always transformative change that requires a period of unlearning that is psychologically painful

If the change only requires new learning, there is less chance of resistance as the new behaviours make work easier. On the other hand, once organisations have developed routines and processes that they are used to, they are more likely to find the new proposed ways unacceptable

"...the change leader therefore needs a model of change that includes "unlearning" as a legitimate stage and that can deal with transformations, not just enhancements..."

Edgar Schein, 2004


"...cultural change inevitably involves unlearning as well as relearning and is therefore, by definition, transformative.....acknowledges from the outset the difficulty of launching any transformative change because of the anxiety associated with the new learning. The change process starts with disconfirmation, which produces survival anxiety or guilt - the feeling that one must change - but the learning anxiety associated with having to change one's competencies, one's role or power position, one's identity elements, and possibly one's group's membership causes denial and resistance to change. The only way to overcome such resistance is to reduce the learning anxiety by making the learner feel psychologically safe.......If new learning occurs, it usually reflects cognitive redefinition, which consists of learning new concepts and new meanings for old concepts and adopting new standards of evaluation.The change goals should initially be focused on concrete problems to be fixed; only when those goals are clear is it appropriate to do a cultural assessment to determine how the culture may aid or hinder the change process..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

(source: Edgar Schein, 2004)


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