Why do most attempts at changing a company’s culture fail? What are the pitfalls to avoid? Executive coach James Sweetman discusses the main reasons why new people management, cultural change and broad upskilling initiatives fail to gain traction. When you know them you can side-step them or, better still, develop a strategy to proactively manage them.

Lack of buy-in and active support from the CEO and senior management team

This is an obvious one, or so you might think. Some projects can be outsourced or delegated, but cultural change initiatives are not one of them. We are talking about the soul of the business – who we are and what we stand for.

Unless change initiatives are actively owned and supported by the senior manager and the senior management team, they will fail. Major change initiatives have to be seen as integral to the business, not just some ‘HR’ project.

Not aligned with business needs

The connection between the change initiative and the business has to be explicitly made and repeated frequently. Focusing on the consequences of inaction and the benefits of change (interpreted for the different audiences within the business) is key. The reasons why something is important (the motive) is where the motivation for engagement is found.

‘No time’ and ‘no resources’

This will always be the common refrain and number one ‘excuse’ for failure to actively participate and take ownership of an initiative. In this context, time is finite and in the short term, resources are usually finite too. It is never a question of time and resources, it is always a question of priorities. If the priority is high enough, time is made and resources found.

Running before you can walk (attempting too much too soon)

Company culture, the ‘unwritten rules as to how we operate’ and the company history (past experiences and shared stories) dictate initial levels of buy-in. Changing company culture is like running a marathon.

How ‘fit’ are the people who will be driving the initiative from both a skills and a willingness perspective? How robust are existing processes and internal communication channels?

If an organisation doesn’t have a culture of staff training and engagement, the skills and mindset will not be in place to cope with any new initiatives.

For example, a performance appraisal conversation is doomed to fail if the manager never has meaningful one-to-one conversations with their staff. You cannot facilitate impactful conversations about change and the future of the business if there aren’t forums in place to support management and staff dialogue.

It’s more than just training

All training and upskilling is a means to an end. The ultimate end is enhanced effectiveness, productivity and profitability. Boosted morale, engagement and proactivity are byproducts.

But training is not a panacea. When addressing cultural change other issues come into play such as wider remuneration and reward structures, how roles are defined, employee engagement, communication structures and management skilsets.

Lack of milestones and measures of success

When dealing with ‘soft’ issues such as communication, engagement and motivation, it is more challenging to identify tangible success factors. Equally the success of an initiative can take months if not years to come to fruition.

At the outset, it is always worth identifying how success will be measured. Focus can also be placed on the process of building momentum. For example, participation in events, the regularity of forums, the capturing and acting upon feedback.

Not listening or engaging with the ‘troops on the ground’

It is not possible to see the exact end from the beginning. Staff at all levels have a role to play. Even if they may be not able to actively contribute ideas, they will remember their opinion was sought.

There is a balance to be struck between ‘top–down’ communication and ‘bottom-up’. Too much of the former and it is likely to be too directional leading to a ‘not invented here’ mindset. Too much of the latter and the initiative is likely to stall as too many voices lead to confusion, a tendency to go off on tangents and to get stuck on issues such as remuneration.

Managers and supervisors are not held accountable for results

Some managers will only be motivated to devote time and energy to an initiative when they know that failure to actively participate will negatively impact on their own performance rating. If a manager is not held accountable for their own lack of buy-in, for treating it as a tick-box exercise, the initiative will fail.

Managers' inability to self-assess

When it comes to soft issues such as communication skills, staff motivation etc, managers have to be able to self-assess, that is, be able to critique their own performance in these areas. This is the fundamental difference between going through the motions and aligning with the reasons why the initiative was launched in the first place.

Leadership is about acknowledging current realities and optimistically forging a path forward. You cannot ignore the current company culture and you have to meet people where they are located on the change adoption curve.

Risk assessment and contingency thinking are key elements of all projects, so by having an awareness of ‘what you are looking to avoid’ means the above factors are on the radar. 

Author: James Sweetman is a motivational speaker and executive coach focusing on leadership, presentation skills and personal development. He is also the author of five books. More information is available at www.jamessweetman.com