organizational development and change tools and techniques for consultants and others

Why cultural change can fail

Cultural change efforts seem to fail as often as they succeed. Knowing the reasons for both success and failure before a project starts can prevent problems and make a faster transition.
Cultural change is neither easy nor fast. It requires concentrated and focused effort over the long haul. It also requires a widespread belief that change is necessary, and the willingness to critically examine current beliefs, values, and practices.

No reason to change!

In 1997, when it was still on the upswing, used Chrysler as an example of a company which had used cultural change to suddenly regain a leadership role. However, the impact was not quite so dramatic in the dealerships. Surveys showed that customers were relatively dissatisfied with North American Chrysler dealers four years after the change effort began. The dealers did not have an urgent need for change once the company’s reversal of fortune became clear. Increased sales made it easy to belittle the need for major changes.

The same power that makes cultural change so effective also makes it hard for people to abandon their customs and beliefs. Therefore, unless there is a clear and pressing need for change, there will nearly always be people who do not test their beliefs and customs. Managers can try to push changes through with sheer force of authority, but that may only stiffen resistance. Personnel changes, likewise, should be a last resort.

The first step, then, is to try to convince people of the need for change. This may involve running focus groups in the presence of key people, going over financial or statistical data, using outside surveys or reports, or benchmarking against competitors. There are many ways to get participation, but each requires respect. It is harder to win people over without respect for their intelligence and their traditions, or without trying to understand their views.


It can be hard to respect those who are blocking your progress; certainly, it is easier to think of them as “resisting,” “stick-in-the-muds,” or “just not able to get it.” But there are often powerful reasons for their lack of participation. For example, people may be afraid they will work themselves right out of a job.

There are reasons why some people resist change, just as there are reasons why you have probably resisted some changes in the past. The keys to acceptance are truly understanding their concerns, working to accommodate their needs and truthfully allay their concerns, defuse the emotions, work with the facts, and work with people instead of around or through them. This may sound like common sense, but in a tight schedule, with our enthusiasm for new ideas and ways of doing things and our own belief that we must be right, it is easy to overlook other people’s concerns.

In many cases, the people who resist change have valid points which may, once you understand them fully, cause you to change or fine-tune your plans. I have often found that people who did not express the reasons for their resistance well (or at all) had quite valid objections which, when considered, greatly improved the outcomes.


Possibly the most significant obstacle is the reward system. Warner Burke wrote that he has abandoned consulting jobs when the rewards system was placed off limits, because it would prevent his success.

The pay, promotion, or bonus system may, in reality or in perception, discourage any change. The maxim “you get what you pay for” (or “you get what you reward”) is as true in organizations as it is in the lab. (This is not necessarily because people are greedy and motivated solely by cash; a company’s reward system may be seen as showing its true intentions, while everything else is “just words.” The cliche: “put your money where your mouth is.”)

Social issues

Another important factor that is often overlooked is the social system. An organizational change in the English coal mines led to a strike because it broke up the working groups of miners; they resisted to keep their social system alive. If you work with the social system, or convince people that they will not lose the parts of it they value, you will be more likely to get everyone’s support - which is essential for a successful change.


Everybody has rules for dealing with the world. That’s an elementary way that we simplify life and prevent ourselves from being so overwhelmed with information that we can’t hunt a bull or even make a fire. However, while many of these rules are either generally true (or, at least, are useful in daily life and not too inflexible), some are simply myths. They may or may not have been born in truth, but, with time, they have lost their relevance and become a block to progress.

Myths are created to explain reality and to support social systems. When myths are ignored, people may resist change because they believe in the myths, and the myths and the new culture may be incompatible. Therefore, one essential step in cultural change is to find and work with (or debunk) myths. Debunking can be very difficult, and the believers should be involved in the process of getting information; otherwise, the debunkers may simply not be believed or trusted. For example, at one auto company, one of the managers of the central customer service center believed that customers were perfectly happy with the center’s service levels and did not want any other way to contact the company. His proof: “if there were any problems, our dealers would tell us about them.” To obtain this manager’s (and other like-minded individuals’) buy-in, the myth of the perfect service center and the contended customer had to be dispelled.

Some common myths have a grain of truth, but the math is wrong: the customer who is never satisfied, the apathetic or lazy employee, the people who mindlessly resist change, etc. There are people who fit those descriptions, but there are very few of them. Most of the people put into those pigeon-holes are there because of self-fulfilling prophecies. If people act like a customer will never be satisfied anyway, the customer will perceive it at some level, and it will cause dissatisfaction. If staff are treated as though they are lazy, they will resent it, and will act according to expectations. When managers believe employees will mindlessly resist change, they do not take the steps needed to involve people (or do not take them seriously enough), and people will resist. 

Each company or organization has its own myths. Some are common across many companies; some are unique. They are usually not very hard to find, especially for outsiders; this is a good opportunity for a student internship!


Cultural change isn’t easy. It is powerful, but if treated like just another management fad, or if forced through like a steamroller, it won’t work.

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