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21 Jun. 2012 | Comments (1)

I’ve been thinking about “culture change” recently. Rapid social and technological changes, game-changing regulations, and increased globalization are putting a lot of pressure on the workplace. Most management books will tell you that culture change is extremely difficult and takes a long time. But I’ve been through several experiences where cultures changed almost overnight, and I wondered if we could learn from those events about how to speed up the process and make change more palatable in our organizations.

As I recently wrote in my blog, Lessons From a 40 Year Reunion: What We Learn and Apply, I graduated from Hamilton College in 1972, having started in the fall of 1968.  Since roughly 1812, the College had been an all-male institution developing standards and traditions reflecting its cloistered, single-sex, small-college, and “establishment-like” environment. When I arrived, we mostly wore button-down shirts, blue jeans, or straight legged khakis. We put on jackets for dinner. Before I arrived, females were a rare and special presence on “the Hill,” as we called our isolated community. Women who were visiting freshmen had to be out of the dorms early; slightly later if visiting upper classmen. From what I could tell, most of these women dressed very conservatively, matching the Hamilton style.

Within two weeks of my arrival at Hamilton, those standards started disappearing. Kirkland College, an all-female school which boasted an independent, more adventurous student body, opened up across the road from Hamilton. Suddenly, about 150 women lived close by. We shared meals and classes with them. The Kirkland women dressed casually, generated their own social conventions, and had little patience for traditions that they saw as impractical and archaic. They questioned assumptions and made us question ourselves.

Many of us bonded with them and started throwing off old traditions quickly. We stopped wearing jackets to meals. For many Hamilton students, straight-leg pants gave way to bell bottoms, and neckties to love beads. By the end of my first semester, Hamilton loosened limitations on when women could visit our dorms. By the end of the first year, those rules disappeared entirely. Our view of the world changed quickly, as well. 

I’m sure that all of us can think of instances of rapid culture change, perhaps driven by dramatic and painful events — just think of how quickly spending habits in America changed in recent years. But changes that arise from negative circumstances, even if necessary, are often met with fear, anxiety, resentment, and even anger.  

What I’ve learned by comparing my Hamilton/Kirkland experience to changes caused by crises is that change for positive reasons is a lot easier and a lot less painful. Our role as business leaders is to make sure that the changes we want to see are attractive to those who have to adapt their behavior. We need to emphasize the positive reasons for change so employees won’t fear or resist it, but will voluntarily adapt on their own.

Looking for positive incentives that are in line with business objectives which benefit individuals and teams is the surest way I know to generate long-standing adaptations.

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  • About the Author:Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq.

    Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq.

    Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI®, a training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase…

    Full Bio | More from Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq.


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  1. William Seidman 0 people like this 30 Jun. 2012 06:06 PM

    I love this example of cultural change. I was at an all-male college at about the same time that admitted women and our culture also changed rapidly. We were very motivated to do anything that would make it easier to get along with the women!

    More seriously, I very much agree with the notion that positive images are a great driving force for cultural change, but not just any images, not from just any source and not as “incentives.” In our 15 years of work changing organizational cultures, we have found that images associated with creating a greater social good (similar to Dan Pink’s “purpose” concept), are the most powerful for causing an organization to rethink itself into a new and better culture. The best source of these images is, somewhat surprisingly, not usually the organization’s executives, but their “positive deviants” – the few people in the organization who are consistently the top performers. Positive deviants are always motivated by a profound sense of purpose that can be articulated in a ways that is compelling enough to drive rapid cultural change. We have had considerable success at changing cultures focusing on these two things – purpose and positive deviants.

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