Micro Interventions

Culture change…or development?

When it comes to changing culture, it’s probably a good move to think about what you mean both by culture and changing it.

Culture is often thought of as ‘how things are done around here’. From such a standpoint, culture change might imply a shift in behaviours and attitudes to support a different way of doing business.

Achieving such changes is hard enough. But culture also has a deeper dimension, as MIT professor Edgar Schein emphasised over 30 years ago when he pointed to basic assumptions as a foundational element of culture, with other elements including ‘artefacts’ (surface level phenomena) and ‘espoused values’ (what the organisation says it holds important).

While it might be possible to induce or influence people and groups to modify the way they work largely through system-level changes, such as with altered reward systems and policy settings, change at the level of basic assumptions implies something more.

Roger Martin, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto Rotman School, puts it like this (see link to Strategy and Business interview with him below): “The truth about culture is that the only way you can change it is by changing the way individuals work with one another. If you can change that, then you will find the culture has changed.”

I’d agree with Martin to the extent that we’re talking about changing thinking and action at the level of underlying mindsets and assumptions, what people take as underlying truths.

Such patterns of thinking and feeling are largely implicit, hidden, below the surface of a metaphorical iceberg. Yet their impacts are powerful, showing up not only in apparent resistance to organisational changes but also in disconnects between stated values and day-to-day practice. An example might be when an organisation declares that it values openness, but employee survey results show high levels of concern about psychological safety.

Change at such deeper levels requires, as Martin puts it: “micro-interventions: small adjustments to the structure, dynamics, or framing of interpersonal interactions, applied consistently over time.”

An implication for me is that, instead of thinking about culture ‘change’ – in the sense of shifting from one fixed state to another – it’s more useful to fame this work as centring on culture ‘development’. It’s inevitably a work in progress.

Micro interventions require ‘micro-skills’. It’s critical to build capabilities in areas such as observing (as distinct from interpreting), perspective taking (understanding an issue from different vantage points), inquiring to get ‘underneath’ issues, and expressing one’s own views in ways unlikely to prompt defensive reactions.

Thanks to my valued colleague Tessa Barnett for alerting me to the Martin interview.

Originally posted 6th September 2022 on LinkedIn

#culture  #od  #conversation  #interpersonal

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