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Respecting the Organizational Culture and Managing the Transition

Updated: Aug 2, 2019

(Originally published on Bloomberg Government, December 2016)


By Dr. Victoria Grady, Dr. Patrick McCreesh, and Dr. James Grady

Culture is central to the success of organizational change. In two previous pieces, we discussed change readiness of federal employees and leadership through the transition, which both require and acknowledgement of, and respect for, organizational culture. Now we want to more fully explore the relationship between culture and change.

Culture sits on a continuum. At one end, reside agencies defined by formal and informal subcultures which promote effective and consistent culture. These organizations optimize productivity through acknowledgment of internal differences, new ideas, challenges, complexity, and the value of diversity as a proper container of emotions in an incubator of innovation. At the other end, live agencies that act as closed systems where new thoughts are considered a threat, significant workgroups retreat into silos, and important information is withheld—all of which leads to organizational ineffectiveness. These agencies will find it difficult to successfully navigate change and transition.

When employees feel disenfranchised or disregarded by the culture of an organization the introduction of change will lead to increased resistance. This resistance limits awareness and inadvertently leads to “quick fixes” that ultimately hinder growth and transition of the organization. However, when the employee’s purposes and the organizational purposes are unified by complementary objectives, the positive nature of this culture can be utilized as a way of managing even significant change within an organization. There seems to be a broad trend emerging that can be perceived as an attempt to repair damaged relationships existing between organizations, leadership and employees.

The forces of change and the resulting instability have provided an increasingly frequent incentive to merge the needs of a qualified workforce and leadership authority into an interdependent organizational community. There is no better example for this opportunity than within our federal government.

Federal Employees are the Agencies most important resource. In 2017, more than 1.4 million civilian employees are set to collect a paycheck from the United States Federal Government. These employees represent approximately 440 agencies. Each of these agencies represents an organizational culture uniquely maintained by the individual employees who constitute the collective agency. Change and transition threaten these cultures. Leadership at all levels should nurture this culture as an asset to change and transition.

Resources need to be protected. Individuals have both conscious and unconscious needs for protection against anxiety, uncertainty, division, and conflict; this is especially critical during a transition. Management and leadership can guard against the perception of neglect with proactive steps to increase communication, support diversity/inclusion, and encourage collaboration to minimize the occurrence of these negative reactions.

Most Important, Nurture the Culture with your People. There is no better way to understand the culture than to understand your people. The culture is a collection of traditions, values, beliefs, rituals and symbols that are uniquely defined over time and by your people. The culture then becomes a tool that will support your people and measurably increase the potential for success.

Organizational culture is an often overlooked aspect of change and transition. New leaders regularly seek to “re-define the culture” as part of broader organizational change efforts, but run the risk of throwing out the good with the bad. Culture connects individuals to organizations and employees are the primary resource in agencies, so leaders need to carefully consider how to use culture to support employees through a change.


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