How Culture Change principles can ensure “unfurling” avoids unravelling


As the furlough scheme runs down many organisations will start the “unfurling” process. For many this will signal a welcome return to a place of both physical and emotional safety & comfort. However, the reality is that things will necessarily be different.

A wise man once said that nothing is constant but change. Ironically, the wise man was Heraclitus being quoted by Plato. So, ironically, on the one hand it’s been changed from the original Greek whilst on the other hand it’s been repeated for over 2000 years.

This very neatly illustrates one aspect of the nature of culture. It’s very elastic. By that I mean many of the things we can do to change culture are short term. Unless you’re careful, they simply snap back when the initiative ends. To make a change stick in one of the four areas of a culture (see article on the Universal Culture Model) you need to ensure that you’re simultaneously working on at least two of the others.  

The other thing we know is that of the four areas the one that normally changes the slowest is Beliefs. However, the one thing that we know can change beliefs quickly is some kind of trauma. For example, many of the strongest voices for safety belong to those who’ve suffered a life-changing injury themselves or lost a loved one. Normally in Safety we are doing everything we can to avoid such trauma. What we have seen in 2020, though, is essentially a global trauma resulting from the pandemic. We’ve certainly changed behaviours radically in response. Initially at least, that has had a huge positive impact in controlling the spread of the virus.

The risk though is becoming apparent. As with many risks, continued exposure without a big personal impact results in a big increase in risk tolerance. The elasticity of culture means that behaviours have a big propensity to revert to the previous (more risky) ones. So what we thought was “unfurling” quite easily becomes the unravelling of all the good work. 

So how can we avoid that? At RyderMarsh OCAID our mantra is that to truly embed organisational culture change takes 1000 things by 1000 people over 1000 days. That means repeating the basics: Hand-washing, special distancing, mask wearing and whatever other barriers to transmission are appropriate for your workplace. Those need to be reinforced by consistent messages and practised. Practised especially by those in formal and informal leadership positions. Repeatedly, until the new normal is fully embedded. Above all keep the profile raised. Talk about how the risk is ongoing and how the measures put in place are helping people stay safe in the here and now. Until they truly appreciate the soon, certain and positive effect the measures and everyone’s changed behaviour is having. 

Whenever you finally get a moment to yourself to reflect on this. Think about how politicians around the world measure up against the criteria. Then how the infection rates in their country or area relate to how well they match.

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