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25 Jul 2014 Back

Corporate Culture Change: Why Small Details Matter

VIEWPOINT: The need for corporate culture change isn’t new. In fact an Egyptian pharaoh is given as an example of a failed change initiative to participants on Wharton’s Executive Development Program.

But today, driven by disruptive forces in the business environment, culture change is higher than ever on the corporate agenda — whether financial service firms moving from a winner-takes-all  to an ethical values driven culture, or product focused companies transforming to be online ‘platform’ businesses, or  organizations adapting from a command-and-control to a collective style of leadership.

Participants in Wharton’s program hear the story of the ‘heretic pharaoh’ Akhenaten at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where professor Greg Urban leads a session called The Power of Corporate Culture — and How to Harness It. Lacking the benefit of business school education, the pharaoh mistakenly attempted to introduce monotheism by having all statues and symbols that reflected polytheism altered or destroyed. But the change did not survive after his death and multiple deities were soon back.

Urban explains, “Akhenaten’s story is a cautionary tale. When you make cultural changes, you have to have some evidence of continuity with the past. If it seems dramatically different, change will fail. One way to do that is to deploy symbols that help you produce the results you want. What we see with Akhenaten is a use of symbols that simply reinforced dramatic change. People weren’t ready for it.”

Changing corporate culture is one of the most difficult of leadership undertakings. Creating the ‘vision’ and addressing the big picture may be difficult enough, but as Urban notes it’s often the small things that make people most uncomfortable. “The things you think are going to have the greatest effect, probably the things you will spend the most time working through, may not bother anybody. Pay attention to detail. A classic example comes from the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger. After management handed out pencils that read ‘Boeing McDonnell Douglas,’ the McDonnell employees could be heard sharpening those pencils until ‘Boeing’ disappeared. Symbols are important, and they can backfire if you’re not observant.”

Urban says that we typically think of ‘culture shock’ as something big, “but very small things can catch you off guard. They can become something much more important than you originally thought. We expect organizations to clash on important management issues, and there are many well-known illustrations of that. Japanese and American companies, for example, have deep disagreements about HR issues.”

But, says Urban, more often clashes are about small details. He tells of a pharmaceutical firm that hired a group of salespeople from another company. The problem?  …expense reports. “One company had employees write narratives in longhand, while the other had pull-down menus on their computers. The group used to the computer model was suspicious of the written narrative. They thought it might have to do with surveillance of their activities. They didn’t trust the process, and ultimately they quit because they couldn’t stand the expense report.”

When leading a global organization understanding and aligning different outlooks becomes especially important. Leaders who can suspend their own judgments and understand why something apparently insignificant can provoke antipathy in others are better able to manage change. Urban says this ability to think and act as an anthropologist, seeing from another’s point of view, can allow you to identify where the real problem lies and address it directly. “Don’t expect everyone to go along with a change,” he cautions. “Pay attention to details, and be ready to spot resistance. Even a pharaoh couldn’t simply dictate change that lasts.”

Image: Relief showing Akhenaten making offerings to Aten, found at Tel el Amarna, the remains of the capital city built by the Pharaoh (c. 1350 BC) and abandoned shortly afterwards.

Further Information


About the Wharton Executive Development Program

About Professor Greg Urban

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