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Dwindling perspective

I regularly find myself astonished by kiwi driving habits. From zipping round you while you are manoeuvring in a car park to pushing you along by sitting close to your rear bumper as you overtake, I find some ‘normal’ Nz habits rude at least and unsafe at worse. What’s interesting is that when I talk to other drivers trained in Britain, they often say the same, yet when I talk to those brought up to drive in Nz many of them don’t see why I think it’s not good driving. But as the years go by, I find myself getting more used to it. Still don’t like it but I treat it as ‘normal’.

It raises an interesting perspective on what’s ‘normal’ and how it can become so culturally. Looking inside organisations many employees get used to the way that things are done. But if you think about any time you have moved from one company to another, there is a short period where you look at the way things are done and wonder about some of the unusual, unproductive or downright bad. That period only lasts for a little while as people convince you of that way, shrug and say it can’t be changed or look at you with the same look I get when I talk to kiwis about kiwi driving. Gradually you accept it, live with, comply with it then do it the same way. This is normal behaviour because to work in a place the last thing you need to do is not blend in or be part of the place. Whether it’s because people are essentially tribal (they are but that’s in another blog) or because non of us like to upset the apple cart (you do have to work there every day), we tend to adapt and get used to what we initially found as strange.

As a change agent I am privileged to see different companies doing different things and I find that whilst some are bad at some things they can always be brilliant at something else. I often share observations as I work with organisations, because let’s face it if a change agent can’t say ‘really?’ when faced with justification of bad culture, who can? But I don’t get asked in every day. Normally its when something clearly needs changed.

What this tends to means for many organisations is that when it comes to envisaging a change in culture they find it quite hard. Its hard to see something better when you defend the norm. Even painful processes get defended as ‘the way we do things around here’.

As a response some organisations look to recruit from outside and tell new people that their outside perspective will be helpful. But people can’t swim against the tide for long so soon that perspective is lost too. Even CEOs, who have the most authority to enable change and speak up about things that are not good, can find themselves gradually becoming accepting of the culture they find themselves in.

So how do you deal with the problem of the outside perspectives gradually diminishing over time?

  • Create deliberate structures around new hires to build in discussions with the CEO and HR Director about their observations of the culture over their first 100 days.
  • Don’t assume senior people will change things when you hire them. Build it in to their objectives that their first 90 days report will have a culture issues topic and follow on actions will have cultural improvements.
  • Don’t wait till it gets so bad and then try and change. The focus groups you use when you are suggesting change can be a regular feature of the business. Get people together to talk about the black side of ‘how we do things around here’.
  • Normalise the discussion of the organisations culture. Don’t assume that your annual survey is enough. Make it ok for people to raise poor cultural tendencies every week and every month.
  • Routinely bring in outsiders, such as change agents, to spend a day or two with your managers and staff to ask questions about the way things are done. Value their report back.
  • Don’t ignore what you learn, whether by survey, focus group, review or new people. When you ignore it you condone it and that locks it in.

Whatever you do don’t let perspectives dwindle over time or one day it may be too late to change anything.

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