Posted by: Rael Kalley | April 15, 2017

401. When cultures collide.


Much of our recent discussion time has been devoted to organizational culture.

We have talked about culture being the very foundation upon which all else is built and how, what we referred to as culture in organizations, we also know as habits in our personal lives.

The recent downturn in our provincial economy driven by the collapse in worldwide energy prices has brought about a high number of mergers and acquisitions within the industry.

These linkings of two or more companies have caused a high casualty list of lost jobs which have impacted tens of thousands of peoples lives and generated much talk and editorializing in the media.

And yet not much has been written of one of the toughest challenges facing those fortunate enough to retain their jobs when their companies merge with others – the stress and challenges of trying to integrate and unify what are often very different cultures.

We have long defined culture as this is how we do things around here, or this is what’s normal and acceptable around here. However, the reality is what’s normal in one organization is absolutely unacceptable in another and a merger can bring about near unbearable challenges for those trying to assimilate highly diverse organizations.

In the case of an acquisition, the presumption is that the culture of the acquiring organization will prevail much like a war in which the victors dictate the terms for all to follow.

While this may seem like a sound strategy, deeply ingrained and entrenched culture does not easily yield to new influence in most corporations. History is filled with many acquisitions delivering disappointing results, and, in fact, never realizing the hoped-for expectations,  principally because the focus is most usually on integrating systems, realizing efficiencies and streamlining strategies without much thought given to the inevitable sabotage that can arise when cultures collide.  Efficient systems may be a benefit of a stellar organizational culture, but should not be the leading indicator.

An equally challenging environment is often created within organizations when, with all good intention, the decision is made to change the culture within one group, department or division without including the rest of the organization.

My work life as a consultant has provided me with front row seating in both companies going through a merger or acquisition and organizations attempting divisional or departmental cultural change and rarely have I seen this reach a successful conclusion without a significant human toll.

One of the many challenges facing those charged with the responsibility of integrating conflicting cultures or changing existing ones is that these tasks are frequently assigned to those who lack both the seniority and authority to influence and sustain change.

These hapless folks are frequently left with the task of trying to explain to those willing to support and adopt cultural change why compliance is seemingly optional for those unwilling to do so.

Change generally does not move in an upwards direction. Successful change almost always flows downwards and requires following very specific guidelines and practices to be both accepted in the short-term and sustainable in the long-term.

Arguably the task of uniting two conflicting cultures is easier following a merger or acquisition than attempting to change culture within a department or division without first aligning with the organizational model.

There are many cases where this has been accomplished successfully and, unfortunately many more, where the attempts at cultural change are frustratingly abandoned.

Recent events aboard several United Airlines flights, and the abysmal early effort by the CEO to explain and justify indefensible behaviours, speaks to the power of culture within organizations. The actions and words of CEOs shine a powerful light on the organizational culture until and unless those at the very top of the house are willing to lead and champion cultural change, it is just wishful thinking on the part of those who strongly desire it.

I have spent years studying how cultures develop and evolve, the impact they have on performance and how best to introduce a new and sustainable culture with a high likelihood of success. And the critical common denominator is this: if you don’t get culture right it is very difficult to get anything else right.

Which organization is more likely to prosper: One which provides an environment where employees cant wait to get to work at the start of the day or one where employees can’t wait to leave at the end of the day?

Till we read again.

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