Watch Your Step! Avoiding Common Culture Change Obstacles


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Culture is a critical ingredient to ongoing customer experience success. While companies can redesign individual interactions, a customer’s ultimate experience with a company is a reflection of its culture and operating processes. 

What is culture? Culture frames what employees do, even when no one is looking. Temkin Group describes culture as how employees think, believe, and act:

Think: Employees need to be intellectually bought-in and understand the customer experience vision and why it is important to the company
Believe: Employees need to see that leaders are truly committed to what is important to the company
Act: Employees need to adjust their behaviors to align with what is important to the company

Even when organizations recognize the importance of culture and understand the need to move their culture in a new direction, they often still fall short in their efforts to change because they:

Focus too much on tactics and not enough on behaviors. Too often companies jump straight into defining communication plans or preparing for rollout events without identifying the critical behaviors that will bring the desired culture to life. Because culture is ultimately about shaping how people act, even the splashiest roll-out event will fail if people don’t understand what they are supposed to do differently afterwards. How to Avoid: Culture change requires a compelling statement that defines what the company will look like in the future. This statement should include language that describes the new behaviors necessary required to be truly customer-centric and should explain how these new behaviors differ from current behaviors. The company needs to connect these behaviors to employees’ daily roles and reinforce the behaviors over time through training, coaching, performance management, on-the-job tools, and recognition programs.

Ignore the existing culture. Unless the organization is brand new, it already has a culture in place. This culture encompasses the explicit and implicit ways that work currently gets done, how people and teams interact with each other, and how ideas really get advanced inside the company – any of which may or may not support the culture change the company is trying to bring about. How to Avoid: To change its culture, an organization must first understand its existing culture, where it’s culture helps it become more customer-centric and where it holds it back. This understanding allows the company to get explicit about how the future state will be different from today’s state. It allows the company to determine which aspects of the current culture it can use as a springboard for change and which it needs to “retire” and replace with new ways of working and interacting. 

Target efforts too broadly. Many small efforts that are scattered across the organization won’t get the traction needed to transform the culture. They will often get attention for a moment but then fall prey to the demands of daily work. These efforts are also easily ignored by those who like the way things are currently done and are resistant to any change. How to Avoid: To move culture in the desired direction, a company needs to act only where it is most committed to doing things differently. It should then make a few highly visible changes to those areas. These focused initiatives are powerful symbols for changing employee beliefs because employees actually see things being done in new ways from the top of the organization down. This also allows the organization to direct its resources and attention – for which there is high internal competition – to the most important, impactful efforts.

Become impatient at pace of change. Culture is very slow to move. Impatient leaders may try to speed things up by introducing even more changes or may lose confidence in the current plan and shift direction. The result? Confused employees who are no longer sure why they are changing, what success looks like, or how they are supposed to act. How to Avoid: Leaders must realize that change is a long-term journey and must commit to working together to remove obstacles and persist through the typical “ups and downs” of change. Even when the company needs course corrections, leaders should introduce them to the rest of the organization carefully, with a clear explanation of why the correction is needed and what it is replacing.

Neglect to reinforce culture over time. Instead of wholly shifting their focus to the next strategic challenge, companies need to help people stick to their new behavior changes over time. How to Avoid: To ensure employees see the successes that result from their actions, companies should use both feedback loops and celebrations to reinforce culturally aligned behaviors at individual, team, and company levels.

Organizations can avoid these obstacles by first recognizing them and then using the principles of Employee-Engaging Transformation to avoid further missteps. Leadership expert Arthur F. Carmazzi captured the value of approaching culture change this way when he said: 

“The ability to do more than expected does not come from influencing others to do something they are not committed to, but rather to nurture a culture that motivates and even excites individuals to do what is required for the benefit of all.”  

Aimee Lucas
I am a customer experience and employee engagement researcher, advisor, speaker, and trainer. I focus my work on guiding clients on how to optimize their employee and customer experience management programs, identifying and publishing EX and CX best practices, and shaping the future of experience management (XM). I have over 16 years of experience improving service delivery and transforming the customer experience through people development and process improvement initiatives.


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