Overcoming cultural resistance

Organisational culture is self-reinforcing — it maintains itself by rewarding behaviour which is deemed to be appropriate and censures behaviour which rattles the status quo. In fact, as mentioned by Daniel Goleman in his book, “Primal Leadership”: “Leaders who wish to install widespread change need to first recognise that they’re working against a paradox — organisations thrive on routine and the status quo”. Managers rely upon well-established systems in order to carry out their jobs with minimal resistance and stress. As a result, most people (in or not in leadership positions) have not challenged themselves to learn something really different for a long time. Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) notes: “By their very nature, organisations don’t readily encourage new learning”.

With the acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI) and many changing needs being experienced by people and organisations worldwide, there is a huge need for organisations to be agile, flexible and innovative in approach. Cultural resistance, however, holds the organisation back and inhibits growth. Even a mandate from the highest levels of the organisation doesn’t guarantee that any change initiative will bring the desired results. Leadership development, in and of itself, falls short and is inadequate to bring about cultural change. As Daniel Goleman notes: “The collective habits of the whole organisation need to be changed”. The collective habits instruct and solidify the company culture. Bringing changes to the culture is a daunting task for all in leadership, not only because systems need to be challenged and reworked, but those in leadership also need to change and changing leadership style is a process, not a programme.

I say “process”, as a new way needs to be charted for the organisation to maintain relevance and presence in our changing world. This “new way” for the organisation involves leadership development, but and perhaps more importantly, it requires resonance with the new direction, new technology and new expected behaviours to achieve success. So, the process involves change to both leadership styles (or better, upgrading the leader’s emotional intelligence) and cultural norms (or behavioural status quo).

Overcoming cultural resistance requires challenging the old model of leadership — one without regard to the emotional or personal dimensions, where people were seen as interchangeable parts. The new model is characterised by leaders who lead not by virtue of power alone, but by excelling in the art of relationship, the singular expertise that the changing business climate renders indispensable. Daniel Goleman says this eloquently: “Resonant leaders know when to be collaborative and when to be visionary, when to listen and when to command. Such leaders have a knack for attuning to their own sense of what matters and articulating a mission that resonates with the values of those they lead. These leaders naturally nurture relationships, surface simmering issues and create the human synergies of a group in harmony. They build a fierce loyalty by caring about the careers of those who work for them and inspire people to give their best for a mission that speaks to shared values”.

Overcoming cultural resistance requires leaders who create a climate of enthusiasm and agility, one where people feel invited to exercise their most innovative creativity and one where they feel safe to give their best.

Originally published at https://www.stretchforgrowth.com on May 23, 2021.

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Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.