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Avoid Cultural Faux Pas and Complete a Culture Impact Check

Traveling internationally for the past few weeks, I am reminded of the impact culture has on our ability to effectively lead and implement changes throughout our organizations. As much as the world continues to become homogenous at an alarming speed and many people and cultures try to emulate the West, they rarely get past the superficial aspects of culture. It is the deep-seated experiences, history, values, mores, beliefs and behaviors of small groups and mega-complex societies that form culture. These individual and collective attributes of the people being impacted by changes are what makes it challenging for us to not only make change happen but understand why someone might resist the changes we are trying to implement.

Despite our efforts to focus on and understand the cultural complexities, our expertise and insight aren’t usually sufficient nor do we choose to take the time to anticipate and predict culture-based resistance to change.

Sponsors and Change Agents need to be reminded of the complexity of culture and the uncertainties they are likely to encounter when they are leading the implementation of change. Of the many aspects of change we try to understand and manage, I believe culture is the most difficult and most unpredictable. Despite our efforts to focus on and understand the cultural complexities, our expertise and insight aren’t usually sufficient nor do we choose to take the time to anticipate and predict culture-based resistance to change.

What I have learned is that the impact of culture on any change cannot be ignored. No matter how hard we try to consciously or unconsciously disregard the impact of geography, language, values, history, experiences, leadership, business practices, communication styles, etc., the individuals impacted by the change will remind us in subtle and obvious ways that culture cannot be overlooked. They — the people of the organization — quietly shut down because we unknowingly offend them. We empower them to make decisions, but they really want to be told what to do, when and how. They need to hear communications delivered by senior leadership, but we always have Change Agents deliver the messages. They may not consider women to have the same status as men, yet we place a women in the role of program leader without the full support that is required. We may view these cultural faux pas as slight missteps. The reality is that we may have committed offensive blunders that forever cast a shadow over the project and potential success of the change.

Those who are impacted by our changes deserve our focused attention. They are completely justified in their expectation that we understand their culture:  who they are, what is important to them, what behaviors are and are not acceptable, their preferences regarding communication, leadership and decision-making, their history and how it influences their thinking, values and perspectives. As Sponsors and Change Agents, we need to have the cultural insight such that our actions mitigate resistance, not accentuate or increase resistance. This focus is not brain surgery. We know it is important but we often avoid the necessary due diligence – deciding it is easier to clean up after our blunders rather than invest in preventing them from ever happening.

Managing the impact of culture on change is an important role for Sponsors and Change Agents. No matter how experienced they are, they find it challenging and often don’t know where to focus their efforts. Initiating the effort is often the hardest part of resistance mitigation. To help Sponsors and Change Agents understand and address their culture anxiety, I find it valuable to create a simple Culture Impact Check of key groups impacted by change.

The Project Team, Change Agents and Sponsors need to ask themselves how the many aspects of culture will impact the change as it relates to:

  1. Geography – Differences of where, facilities, people, functions and customers are located
  2. Organization – Differences among and between Business units, functions, facilities and departments
  3. Country/Ethnic Background – Impact of cultural heritage, history, and historical allies and enemies
  4. Gender – Perceptions aligned to male/female status, position, role, value, etc.
  5. Language – Reactions to a single business language OR management of multiple languages
  6. Perception and Value of Time – Challenges when time mindedness of those impacted differs
  7. Values and Mores – Differences in opinions and actions of “right and wrong”
  8. Anchor Beliefs and Behaviors – Differences in core beliefs at the center of business decisions, people and organizational words, actions and policies and investment and profit sharing choices
  9. Organizational History – Challenges when components of the business don’t share the same history, business profile and/or support the same product/services lines
  10. Leadership & Decision Making – Reactions to directive, collaborative, consensus, facilitative, group, public or private approaches
  11. Performance Feedback – Perceptions of feedback; positive or negative, welcomed or resisted, required or recommended, prescriptive or recommended
  12. Communication Styles – Differences in face-to-face, leader led, personal, public, written, detailed, or abbreviated
  13. Learning Preferences – Differences in facilitator led, self-paced, on-line, just-in-time, detailed or abbreviated
  14. Reward/Reinforcement/Recognition Preferences – difference in preferences:  public or private, words or tokens, formal or informal, accepted or rejected

 Download LaMarsh Global’s Culture Impact Worksheet here to begin your Culture Impact Check today.

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Rick Rothermel

Rick is CEO and Director of Consulting Services at LaMarsh Global. He is a change management expert, thought leader and entrepreneur and has served as a founding member of the Board of Directors of ACMP. Rick’s previous experience includes Chief Learning Officer at Michigan Virtual University, Executive Vice President of e-Learning at Global Dynamics and Director of North American Education, Training and Development at Ford. Connect with Rick on LinkedIn here.

Comments (2)
  1. David Drinan says:

    Rick, I understand the need to be sensitive to cultural norms; however, some of the items on your list seem to play into cultural biases that inhibit positive and productive change. For example you wrote: “They may not consider women to have the same status as men, yet we place a women in the role of program leader without the full support that is required. We may view these cultural faux pas as slight missteps. The reality is that we may have committed offensive blunders that forever cast a shadow over the project and potential success of the change.”

    I believe that as change leaders, we should be sensitive to certain cultural issues but not to let backward thinking be part of our plan forward. Let merit and results show. Support people who are change agents. Don’t let the inhibitors of change set the rules of engagement. Let good ideas, good management, good leadership prevail from where ever it comes from. Don’t stifle creativity and progress in the name of cultural perceptions.

    • Rick Rothermel says:

      David – Thank you for your very thoughtful response. I agree with your statements and the overarching desire to treat people fairly, absent of cultural bias and allow conclusions to be made on the merits of their actions. However, there is also the risk to the change project that must also be considered. It is my view that if we know a decision we are making, regardless if it is related to culture or not, creates risk to the change we must accept that risk with our eyes wide open to the potential result. I like to contain risk as much as possible.

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