***This article is part of a series on employee engagement called Capitalizing on Culture. The series follows Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Trimark Sportswear Group and its quest to improve company culture.

Week five: Handling resistance to cultural change

In theory, the process of evolving a good corporate culture into a great one, as Trimark Sportswear Group president Will Andrew is trying to do, should be relatively straightforward and easy. After all, who wouldn't want a workplace to improve - particularly if it meant a better bottom line?

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But because human beings are involved, it's not quite that easy. Changing isn't something many of us do with ease.

"In the best of cultures, you can assume there's going to be a low of 5 per cent to a high of 15 per cent of folks who are having a difficult time with culture change, and that's because of the second word," explains Marty Parker, president and chief executive officer of Waterstone Human Capital and founder of Canada's 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures program. "Change requires them to act differently than they have in the past, and that is either extremely difficult or impossible for some people to do."

So, assuming that whatever change a company is going through is going to appeal to some and not others, now what?

"The big question is, are you able to understand where each individual employee sits or not?" says Neil Crawford, leader of the Best Employers in Canada study at Hewitt Associates. "Do they belong in the new world?"

No matter the eventual outcome, it takes time for employees to figure that out. Even the most effective culture change is rarely complete in 18 months. In the tougher cases, says Mr. Crawford, "it takes a lot more work, a lot more time and change may not go as far as you'd like it to go."

In the meantime, a major challenge for employers is determining who is not on board with change, and why.

"They are sometimes snakes in the grass," says Mr. Parker. "They're not always jumping out and communicating, even in the most open environment, because what they have to say is 'I don't understand it,' 'I don't like it' and 'I don't know how to get there.'"

Often, those who are most silent in a changing climate are the least happy, keeping a low profile so they'll go unnoticed. "But they will be noticed if they're not, over time, putting their energy and weight behind it," he adds.

Employers might see a negative change in an employee's performance - another possible indicator of unhappiness or confusion. Perhaps they don't know how to fit in, and in some cases they might not ever be able to. In others, however, they will.

Another typical scenario is workers making the mistake of resisting change in too open a way, often because they're not certain how else to do it. "'Do I do it with management? With HR?' Even in the most open of cultures, it puts them at risk," Mr. Parker says.

In a successful evolutionary process, leadership will have created a safe environment and clear channels for debate and discussion, experts agree. That means constant communication - plenty of forums for talking, listening, debating and discussing.

"Determining that some aren't aligned is an expectation; it's going to happen," says Mr. Parker. "Your role is to find out how to help turn those who can be. But unless people believe it's for the greater good, convincing them is difficult."

At a certain point, though, employees have to come into alignment if change is going to be a success. If some can't, then, Mr. Parker says, "you can go on to a more thoughtful and professional process into another role or, in some cases, out. It will become more collaborative." Humane transitions are key, he adds, because other employees are watching. "If they find it's done very clinically, they'll check out."

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Even when a cultural change is not major, it requires complete focus on the new evolved behaviour to get to the desired end and lots of positive reinforcement.

And, adds Mr. Parker, "recognition is free, by the way."

See more from the Capitalizing on Culture series:

Through stories and video, The Globe and Mail will be checking in with Trimark's new president Will Andrew and his team as they go through the process of identifying and implementing the steps toward achieving a winning culture. Experts will offer their insights about the importance of such a process and the things a company should - and should not - do along the way. Mr. Andrew will contribute a regular diary about his experiences, good and bad.

Video introduction to the Capitalizing on Culture series Meet Trimark president Will Andrew as he explains how and why he wants to improve his sportswear company's culture

Introduction: Company culture in the crosshairs Week one: Trimark president Will Andrew embarks on a quest to improve his firm, starting with a winning corporate atmosphere

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Leadership diary - week one: Preparing for a cultural sea change? Take a deep breath It's not all about management, or just employees; it will be a group effort, Will Andrew writes in his first diary

Preparing for a cultural sea change? Take a deep breath It's not all about management, or just employees; it will be a group effort, Will Andrew writes in his first leadership diary