Culture change: how good intentions backfire

Stress - Ivar Van Bussel

By Quentin Millington, an Executive and Organisation Development Consultant at Noble Stamp.

'The shifting demands of markets, clients and regulators have us all sweating from pillar to post.

For months now, we have overheard talk of ‘culture’ and ‘change’ across every desk, lift-lobby and bar-stool in the Square Mile.

Sadly, ‘culture change’ (and its plain-Jane, less fashionable cousin, ‘making things better’) is easier said than done. Below are eight things managers do with good intentions that ironically backfire and undermine their efforts to improve the organisation.

Look to past success

‘Culture’ is a good thing. It is a set of assumptions – based on experience – about how to solve shared problems. These mental short-cuts save us from reinventing the wheel and so aid efficiency (and survival – our ancestors did not need to think before climbing a tree to escape hungry lions). However, our fast-spinning world throws up fresh challenges that require new solutions where existing cultural assumptions may not apply. Kodak’s century of success led its executives to believe that cheap digital cameras could not destroy their film franchise, yet Big Yellow now faces bankruptcy. (Similarly, to assume that lions never climb trees would be fatal in Ishasha or by Lake Manyara.)

Focus on the obvious

Change happens when we adopt new systems, processes and behaviours that reflect our idea of a better future. Sadly, these solutions will be rejected or abandoned unless people reassess the hidden assumptions that motivate what they do. Where sales executives (however unconsciously) value profits over service, no rewriting of procedures manuals will secure the right deal for their clients.

Emphasise core values

We need a vision of the future, and ‘values’ help us to describe the kind of industry or company we want to build. Nevertheless, people can lie about their values: have you ever read ‘profits before clients’ or ‘committed to inflexibility’ in a corporate slogan ? No! Managerial tub-thumping about values through town halls, mission statements and e-mail signatures creates a semblance of progress, but can detract from crucial work on employee behaviours and the assumptions that drive them.

Attempt to manage change

No one can ‘manage’ change. What we can do is create opportunities for people to discover fresh approaches to their work that solve today’s problems. As people achieve success with (and are rewarded for) these attempts, so new assumptions evolve to replace the outdated ones. This is what we really mean by ‘culture change’.

Lead from the top

Everyone from the CEO downwards should be engaged in (and actively support) performance improvement initiatives. That said, managers who emerge from off-sites like Moses from Mount Sinai are not the answer. Culture simply does not care about managerial diktat. New cultures evolve when people up and down the hierarchy discover for themselves – and in collaboration with others – valid ways to overcome their current shared problems.

Expect high performance

Naturally, the long-term goal is better performance (a concept that we in the City are rethinking). During the change process, however, people will try out new ideas and fail. Anxiety rises as people learn new systems, processes and behaviours; output drops. Managers who penalise interim shortfalls in performance will find themselves facing a wall of resistance.

Talk about ‘culture change’

Apart from consultants, no one really cares about change per se: it is (or should be) a means to an end. Discuss instead what makes for a responsible industry, world-class client service, enjoyable and productive work, or efficient business operation. Sure, know how to use the brush and canvas – but talk non-stop about the painting.

Prioritise the day job

Of course, managers must encourage their teams to sell equities, trade derivatives, write research or market deals. However, to manage the organisation without improving it is unsustainable in our fast-moving global economy. In other words, leading change is now part of the day job. For those who disagree, if the annual 360 does not get you, the market surely will'.

To discuss the ideas in this article further, please e-mail Quentin at

Senior executives (CxO, HR Directors, business unit heads or their direct reports) in financial institutions are also invited to attend a breakfast event 'Culture change in the City - How to overcome resistance' on 29 July at the Oxford and Cambridge Club

For more details and to request a place, visit

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