It’s all too easy to boil company culture down into a handful of adjectives.
We hear it all the time; Amazon is “driven” and “intense,” Salesforce is “charitable” and “learning-forward,” and Nextiva is “fun” and “collaborative.” These descriptions make it easy to assume that every company outpost offers the same experience and shares the same mentality. We imagine that each company’s culture must exist in a kind of snowglobe; its identity neatly walled away from the outside world and influenced only by internal factors that the company can see and control.
The snowglobe theory implies that enacting organization-wide cultural change, too, should be easy. If every company outpost has the same culture, then a change management strategy that successfully engages employees in one office should do the same at others — shouldn’t it?
In practice, no. While the snowglobe analogy is easy to fall back on, it isn’t all that accurate. Workplaces are fundamentally influenced by the countries and communities they inhabit; an office in New York will inevitably have different working norms than one in Dubai, Tokyo, or even San Francisco — and each outpost will need different kinds of support from its leaders.
Sweden, for instance, is known for its egalitarian approach to communication and collaboration; even in the classroom, young students usually feel comfortable calling their teachers by their first name and rebutting points during class. In China, the significantly more social emphasis is placed on hierarchy and offering deference to authority. As might be expected, these social norms have a heavy influence on workplace norms and create drastically different opinions on what makes an effective leader.
In my experience, an organization’s culture is more like an onion. A shared, corporate-level culture makes up its outer skin — but once you peel that layer back, you find norms developed on a regional or national level. If you investigate further, you’ll discover cultural layers infused with local norms or established by an individual manager’s leadership style.
Attempting to force-fit a change management solution that was developed to suit only the “onion’s” topmost layer can only ever create skin-deep cultural shifts. To effectively drive change across a multinational organization, the way a leader communicates must incorporate a nuanced understanding of cultural differences between company offices. Not doing so risks, at best, that the message will be lost. At worst, a poorly-thought-out change management solution can alienate employees and exacerbate an organization’s existing cultural problems.
In 2017, cross-cultural management researcher Erin Meyer shared a case study of what can happen when leaders fail to take cultural differences into account when providing direction to employees in a new country. In Meyer’s anecdote, an American firm opens up shop in China and structures the new outpost with their usual egalitarian expectations for employee collaboration. Quickly, though, the leaders begin to feel frustrated — their Chinese employees aren’t coming forward with ideas or taking initiative the way that their American counterparts would.
“I expect them to produce new ideas and to give the bosses information so that we can make the best decisions for the benefit of the business,” the executive lamented.
But soon, the American leadership realized to their shock that employees at their office were equally annoyed because Chinese businesses tend towards the clear direction and hierarchical management. For them, egalitarianism felt uncomfortable and ineffective — and reflected poorly on the American leaders.
“We were perceived not just as incompetent but as arrogant, because we didn’t take the time to explain to our staff carefully and in detail what we wanted them to do and how,” one executive told Meyer of the experience.
Meyer’s case study illustrates the resentment and frustration that can occur when cultural differences are not taken into account in everyday work. It demonstrates why leaders need to have a nuanced understanding of their outposts’ cultures when pursuing organization-wide change. According to research from McKinsey, only one in three organizational transformations succeed, on average. Being able to communicate effectively could make the difference between an effective cultural change effort and one that falls short.
In a time of change and uncertainty, it’s crucial to get cross-cultural management and communication right. In my experience, there are a few tactics that leaders can adopt to improve the chance that cultural change efforts will be accepted across all cultural “layers” of an organization.
Craft a Clear, Concise Message
A leader needs to be sure everyone involved in change knows and understands both their short-term strategy and long-term vision for the future. That said, neither of these points can be overly complicated or confusing to your employees.
Setting too many goals for a change management campaign can be detrimental. According to a recent study published in Administrative Science Quarterly, employee motivation will decline over time if an organization’s intentions aren’t limited and precise. As the researchers write: “a small number of subgoals may have more enduring benefits for motivation because the objective will remain front and center in employees’ minds and thus provide a constant source of inspiration.”
Leaders will need to limit the number of changes to keep their people-focused — even if doing so means learning to drop or de-prioritize a goal. Then, these central goals can be translated into working assignments for the unit, team, and ultimately individual-level work.
Speak With Your Team, Not At Them
Few people will listen to a lecture in its entirety, and fewer will change their behavior based on what they hear. When leaders communicate a change management strategy, they must speak with their teams, rather than at their teams. This means crafting messages in a way that acknowledges what matters to employees and leaving room for them to respond and ask questions.
Generally, there are three primary conditions that leaders need to meet before their employees will actively take part in the change effort. First, the message must be framed in a way that employees can understand the reason for the change and support it. Second, they must see their managers and colleagues modeling the new behavior. Third, new systems, procedures, and incentives must be in place to support employees during the transition.
However, as discussed above, this change process must be thoughtfully designed to convince and promote buy-in within an outpost’s specific culture. This doesn’t mean merely tweaking to suit cultural stereotypes, like Swiss care for egalitarianism or Chinese preference for clear hierarchy; in fact, relying on stereotypes over hard-won experience might create more problems.
To borrow a quote from Erin Meyer again, “[Stereotyping] can lead to oversimplified and erroneous assumptions—the Japanese always make top-down decisions, or the French are indirect when giving negative feedback. It then comes as a surprise when your French colleague bluntly criticizes your shortcomings, or when your Japanese clients want buy-in from the cook and the cleaner before reaching a decision.”
Leaders will need to take the time to develop a detailed understanding of communication norms, preferred leadership styles, and noting which goals might require more explanation in one office than in another.
Encourage Feedback and Provide Reinforcement
Once an organization has communicated its change goals and strategy, leadership at all levels will need to take an active role in guiding the deployment process. Everyone — from executive leadership to middle management to natural work teams — needs to uphold and accelerate the change effort.
In my experience, scheduling regular process updates and aligning Key Process Indicators (KPIs) along a prospective timeline can help ensure that changes occur and are supported efficiently. Holding quarterly virtual, company-wide town hall meetings, as well as periodic local gatherings, can also allow employees a chance to weigh in on the change process and provide much-needed feedback to company leaders on a regular basis. Executives can then use this feedback to reflect on any problems and resolve them early in the change process.
Culture is complex and changing it is difficult — but it is possible. To do so, leaders must find shared ground upon which they can repeat an organization’s message over, and over, and over again.
As former GE CEO Jack Welch once said, “You have to get in the skin of every person in the organization, and you can’t get bored with your message. You can’t just say it once and expect it to happen. You have to repeat yourself until you almost want to gag.”
And, in this case, do so in as many languages as necessary.
Robert Logemann currently serves as the CEO for the Tyden Group, a leading manufacturer of track and trace systems, and has built his career by optimizing business and management processes. Over the course of his career, Logemann has helped struggling companies in fields spanning the gamut from medical technology to consumer goods find success. He has previously been published in Real Leaders Magazine, Manufacturing Business Technology, CFO Magazine, and Conscious Company.
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