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Culture Changes, Large Scale and Small

Culture is one of those things that is difficult to define but easy to feel. We know when it's going wrong, but we are less sure about how to set it on the right path from the beginning. Often we feel like it's controlling us rather than the other way around. It's intangible, but critically important. It has a real impact on a business and its people.

I was thinking about this the other day, watching the debate about the laws about gun control in our country. There's a lot of interest in changing the laws about guns among the population at the moment, but if we're being honest with ourselves, changing laws isn't going to be sufficient to effect the change that the young students of Parkland want to effect. What really needs to change is the culture that has evolved from our relationship with guns.

Take, for example, Switzerland. It has the most guns per capita of any country in Europe, and is close to the top of the list of nations in the world. It's a surprise for the nation that everyone uses as a catchphrase for a neutral zone. They've taken no stance in most wars, so what's with all the guns? Firstly, all Swiss men must perform military service (women may also do it, but it's not mandatory). They can elect to buy their service weapon after they leave, but they don't get bullets to go with it - they're kept in national armories. It's also not considered a method of self defense, but rather national defense. They consider having a weapon an honor and responsibility to defend Switzerland if necessary. It's not intended for personal use. It's an entirely different culture than ours.

When I think of our gun culture, I think of the Wild West, John Wayne and cowboy movies. I think of ranchers and the Alamo and all the stories I heard growing up that revolved around national heroes bravely defending themselves, their property or their families with guns. We still see it in our language - "Shoot from the hip." "He's a straight shooter." "Hot as a pistol." Of course, our history largely sanitized how we used guns to take land from the native Americans, or keep people of color in positions of servitude. Perhaps if we were more honest about the impact our guns had we'd feel differently about them now.

In any regard, our culture has led us to a tortuous place, and many have called for changes on the legislative level. As any good HR practitioner who has gone through a large change effort can tell you, just changing policies is not going to be enough to make the workforce feel good about and adhere to big changes. In fact, it can make those changes backfire. I think there's a big lesson to be learned for our country as a whole from how companies successfully make change.

1. Change starts from the top. You have to have your leaders on board with the change, and they have to be a klaxon for everyone to orient towards. If your leaders aren't completely committed, everyone will see it, and they'll feel that they don't really have to change, either, because most people are uncomfortable with change and will look for any excuse not to do it. It's just human nature - we like things that are familiar, even if they aren't as good as what could come in the future. Our leaders help us see that future and motivate us to work toward it.

2. Change takes time. It's difficult to make a significant change in a short period of time. The bigger the change, the longer it takes. I've seen significant change efforts happen in a short period of time, and you make a lot of enemies doing it that way. You can force it through, but it's ugly. If you want to take everyone with you along the way, and make the changes something that everyone in your group can eventually get behind, you have to take your time and really sell your vision. Failing to do so will leave people behind. It may be your preference to take a "Get on board or say good bye" approach to change, but you can't quite do that with your fellow countrymen. They're pretty much going to be here either way.

3. There will always be a segment of people who aren't going to like it. No matter how good the effects will be, no matter how well thought out, no matter how many facts you bring to your argument, there will always be a percentage of people that will not be convincible. The good news is there will always be a segment that will be quite enthusiastic with you. What you need to spend your time on is the segment that is in the middle, that has yet to be convinced. Don't waste your time trying to sway the ones that will never get with your agenda - you may end up alienating those on the fence that could have been convinced.

4. If it's what's best for the business (or country), you make the best plan of action you can, and you do it. During your change process, you learn. You keep taking a pulse of how it's going over, and you make changes as needed. Always look for ways that you can refine your message and bring new people on board. Find your new champions and ask them to share the message, too.

I'm always happy to hear from my readers, so please do leave your thoughts below!

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