August  14,  2018

Change is hard for all of us, no matter where we sit in the world. However, when a change project spans multiple geographies and cultures, we must adapt our approach. Too often, global organizations disregard cultural nuances and fail to understand that the perception of change, organizational or otherwise, is not consistent across the world. They gloss over cultural norms and value systems and the initiative suffers.

Here are a few cultural factors that might impact your change projects and some recommendations on adjusting your approach.

Sharing Authority

Cultures share power differently. Some place all authority and decision-making at the top of the organization, while others distribute the power more evenly.

For example, I was working with an executive of a state-owned enterprise in China. They were launching a new ERP system to almost a million employees.  We were discussing the best project management and governance approach. The executive said, “I don’t need any of that. I just tell people what to do and they do it.”

As it turns out, that wasn’t just the view of the executive, it was the view of the entire organization. Nothing got done unless and until he said it got done. This didn’t mean that workers had no point of view or that they didn’t want to be consulted. It only meant that no action would be taken unless it came from the top.

Think about how this might impact the way we engage employees during a change project. In this instance, top-down is everything, so we might consider videos or other communications featuring executives. Regional alignment is still needed, but it’s less important than in cultures where authority is distributed more evenly.

Aversion to Risk

We all are risk-averse. After all, who likes uncertainty? It’s really the trade-off between risk and reward that matters.

Some cultures are more entrepreneurial by nature and are more willing to take risks if they believe the benefits will follow. That same spirit permeates the workplace; employees are more willing to change if they buy into the benefits. Messaging benefits is always important, but more so within risk-tolerant cultures.

In cultures where employees are less willing to give up certainty for future benefits, you might take a different tack.  Here it’s important to create a new certainty – to make the point that the current state is not sustainable and that future stability relies on the change. Additionally, these cultures want to see more structure around the change. It must be highly engineered and deliver proof of a new order.

Collective Mindset

A few years back I was working on a project in the Philippines with a local businesswoman. She had a very successful consulting company and wanted help with her sales processes. After digging in, I was surprised to find out how many of her engagements were collaborations with her direct competitors. Not partnerships, but true collaborations where resources were traded back and forth and co-managed for the benefit of the client. Neither firm took advantage of the other, nor did they undermine the other’s position in the engagement. It was amazing to watch.

Cultures with a collective mindset value the contributions of the group over the individual. The opposite is true of individualistic cultures; in these cultures, a team-based recognition and reward structure might actually be demotivating and create conflict and distrust. It is critical to understand the collective vs. individualist mindset during the change process, particularly when we think about alignment and messaging.

In the United States, we have a more individualist approach and build our change interactions accordingly. We don’t tend to spend a lot of time and effort positioning the change’s value to the firm and to society in general. It’s about the WIIFM, and making sure individuals view the change as a positive step for themselves and their careers. In Sweden, however, this approach might feel unsettling or even shallow.

It’s important to understand what motivates people to change and those motivations might be completely different in a multi-culture change initiative.

Our culture impacts the way we view change and consequently how we should approach change management in multi-cultural implementations. In the end, change management is about changing behaviors. If we believe that behavior follows thought, then we first need to understand how cultural norms and values influence the way the organization thinks. In multi-cultural change initiatives, our interactions should motivate and support each culture according to its own set of values.