Overcoming the Anxiety of a Culture Change

Imagine that tomorrow morning you awaken with total amnesia. You have no idea of who you are. Your bedroom is unfamiliar. The person sleeping next to you seems to be a stranger. Even your pajamas seem alien. Contemplate the anxiety - no, terror that you would experience. Why is this so scary? The room, after all, is quiet. There are no tigers or monsters around. Why is your heart beating so fast, your breathing so rapid, and your mind on full alert?

Our sense of identity is central to our comfort. It tells us what we are and are not good at. We know our behavior patterns and the responses that they usually get from others. We have a sense of where our life is going. This knowledge allows us to organize our behavior and makes the world more or less predictable. Total amnesia would throw everything up for grabs.

What has this got to do with culture change? Culture defines a company’s identity. When leaders demand a change in the culture, they inadvertently create the same kind of anxiety among employees that our amnesiac just experienced. Employees don’t have the old rules of conduct to guide them. Work becomes unpredictable and frightening.

To reduce their fears, employees often return to the old, comfortable, predictable behaviors they had been asked to change. Therefore, whenever leaders introduce changes into their company’s culture, they must find ways to overcome this anxiety among employees. Let’s follow a fictional leader to illustrate. We’ll see first the typical misstep, then the move that led to success.

Our leader (let’s call him Dave) runs a highly successful major construction firm. Its success has attracted competition. To maintain a competitive edge, Dave decides to cut costs and enhance quality. Simultaneously! It would be quite the trick if he could pull it off, but he has a good plan.

Dave knows that a nationwide survey shows that 50% of labor time in construction is unproductive. He also knows that, in his company, turnover is high and costly. His plan is to enhance the leadership effectiveness of his middle management. First, he wants them to improve communications with their workers, which should reduce non-productive time, perhaps to 40%. This would create a huge boost to profitability. Second, he wants them to build better relationships with workers to reduce turnover, as it has in other industries.

The ideas make so much sense to Dave that he simply tells his managers what he wants. They take a few stabs at changing but quickly revert to their previous “command and control” behavior. Why? Trying to follow his request puts them in a state of amnesia-like anxiety. To get comfortable again, they go back to what is familiar.

Now Dave has a choice - give up, or help his managers overcome their anxiety. Fortunately, other leaders have faced similar conditions and discovered ways to succeed. Dave follows their example.

The first step is to be clear about the assumptions that already exist in their culture. Dave and the managers have to recognize what their current thinking really is before they can change it. As outlined in my most recent column, leaders can discover the real, often hidden assumptions that organize the culture by comparing espoused values to actual behavior, i.e., find the times when people don’t walk the talk.

This company found that although its vision statement says that “people are our most important asset,” people who are in line positions are treated as if they were incapable of actual thought. No wonder turnover is high. While it was not comfortable to identify their assumption that workers could not think, doing so allowed them to decide whether to retain or change that belief.

The second step may seem counter-intuitive. Dave created additional anxiety, but of a different kind. He introduced “survival anxiety”. He honestly told his managers that unless the management style was changed, the company would not be able to maintain its leadership position in its market. If the company’s position slipped, its future would not be certain. This gave managers motivation to learn a new way.

Step three involved facing even more anxiety, called “learning anxiety”. Once the managers accepted the need to change, they came face to face with the fear that they would not be able to learn improved ways to communicate and relate to their workers. Whenever people are faced with the need to learn something new, they have all sorts of fears. “I’m not good at this kind of thing!” “Maybe I’ll be fired for messing up!” “I’m sorry, but those people are stupid. I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask their opinion. I’ll quit first!”

Dave created “psychological safety” to reduce learning anxiety to a manageable level. He did this in a variety of ways. He offered an exciting vision of the future of the company as a result of the change. This gave people something to look forward to. He provided competent training so that they had a real chance to learn what was necessary, rather than just telling them to “be different.” Each manager was given some control over how he or she learned. This helped on two levels. First, people learn best in different ways, so different methods need to be available. Second, selecting his or her own learning method gave each manager some feeling of control, which also reduced anxiety. Dave also set up chances for the managers to practice the new skills, with much coaching and feedback. This helped deepen their newly acquired skills in the real world in which they worked.

At first, the new behaviors felt like alien pajamas. Managers’ efforts were a bit like playacting because they still thought of themselves in the old terms. Gradually, though, with practice, coaching, and time, the new methods became comfortable and were integrated into the managers’ beliefs about their own identity in the company. This culture change, which began in failure as most such changes do, became one terrific piece of leadership.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps companies manage and value their people. He can be reached 774-1927 and by e-mail at dana.ackley@eqleader.net.

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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