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Changing an organization, be it the public or private sector, is a difficult, complex task. It is often met with resistance from employees who do not see the need for change. (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)
Changing an organization, be it the public or private sector, is a difficult, complex task. It is often met with resistance from employees who do not see the need for change. (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Human Resources

What to do when your corporate culture sucks Add to ...

When morale sank to a low point among civic employees in London, Ont., in 2004, Jeff Fielding, then chief administrative officer and now city manager, decided it was time to do something about it.

Among the issues were allegations of harassment and abuse of city staff. To boot, two human rights specialists had resigned. Four previous city managers had come and gone in two years.

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“We had to change the culture of the organization,” recalls Mr. Fielding, noting how human rights and code-of-conduct issues had drawn negative reports in the local media. “The confidence and trust within the community was low.”

Mr. Fielding approached the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business. They formed a partnership that led to a leadership program for 350 senior managers.

The program, which focused on case study methodology developed at Ivey, initially drew flak.

“People asked, ‘What could the Ivey School contribute to a public service organization?’” recalls Mr. Fielding. “The case we made was, the future of London is just as important to the University of Western Ontario and the Ivey School as it was to any citizen. Our managers had a unique opportunity to make the city stronger and better.”

By the time it completed the 3½-year program, London was back in the top ranks of Canadian cities. The city placed sixth in the Maclean's magazine’s report on municipalities in 2009 and was called the best-managed city organization in Ontario. “We were able to make improvements. Ivey helped us reach our goal.”

Mr. Fielding, who will become city manager of Burlington, Ont., on Jan. 30, is particularly proud of the sensitivity training, which was aimed at ending harassment and violence against women.

Changing an organization, be it the public or private sector, is a difficult, complex task. It is often met with resistance from employees who do not see the need for change. But success is possible if senior executives communicate the need for change, devote the resources and are patient enough to realize that change won't happen overnight, experts say.

About half of all programs intended to bring about such change fail, says Gerard Seijts, associate professor at the Ivey School and director of the Leading Cross-Enterprise Research Centre. “And for some, the implementation takes far longer than expected,” he says.

Among the stumbling blocks is human nature. “People don't resist for one reason, but multiple reasons,” says Prof. Seijts. One person will resist change because he or she has low confidence, he says. For them, he adds, it's a matter of training, knowledge and skills.

But many will resist because they believe the initiative is unnecessary. “Most efforts fail because people don't see the need, or urgency, for change,” says Prof. Seijts, who was director of the City of London leadership program. “People like the status quo. We always underestimate the ease of driving people out of their comfort zones. This is probably one of the most difficult things to do.”

Prof. Seijts and other academics and industry consultants offer seven pointers for improving the odds of success.

If the organization requires deep and comprehensive changes, then senior management should be highly visible and supportive, says Prof. Seijts. He attributes London's success to Mr. Fielding, who managed the program from start to finish. “He really owned it and showed his unequivocal support.” Conversely, Prof. Seijts adds, some managers fail to adequately articulate the need for change. “They think if they send out an e-mail, their employees will see the light. It just doesn't happen that way.”

While executives have to be clear about their objective, they also have to communicate that message continuously, says Harvey F. Kolodny, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “People often don't hear you the first time, or the second time, or the third time. They don't understand what you're trying to achieve. So it has to be repeated over and over by different managers, because some are more credible than others.”

Focus, will and capability are key, says Jeff Moir, Toronto-based partner with Deloitte's human capital consulting division. “Employees need to have an understanding of what is being asked; the tools, or capability, to do the job; and the will, or motivation,” says Mr. Moir. To be successful, companies must ensure that employees understand what is expected of them and front-line managers are prepared to provide coaching for their staff. “When it comes to the ‘will’ component, these companies really think through why employees would want to change the way they work,” says Mr. Moir.

Cynicism can be a serious problem. “You need to bring the cynicism to the surface and deal with it in an upfront manner,” says Ronald Burke, professor emeritus, organization studies at York University's Schulich School of Business, in Toronto. “If not, your employees will be half-hearted. The reasons for their skepticism will never be identified and addressed in any meaningful way.”

One way to deal with resistance is to develop a program that focuses on achieving one small goal after another. “Why don't we bite off a small piece and see if we can tackle that?” says Prof. Burke. By achieving a series of small wins, employees will feel more confident about a more challenging program. “The notion of small wins is a good way to deal with skepticism,” says Prof. Burke.” And if it doesn't work out, you can go back to the old way or redesign the process.”

Start with people who are sympathetic to the initiative, adds Prof. Burke. “If you can get those people on your side, then they could be spokespeople to get the skeptics on board.”

Executives, managers and front-line employees must avoid becoming complacent. “As the rate of change appears to be accelerating, we have to find ways to keep the momentum up,” says Prof. Seijts. “Tomorrow could bring a shock in the market or another technological advancement. This means focusing on continuous improvements, even if they are small-scale. You are never done.”

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