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Mistakes you want to avoid when implementing Change Management in a culturally diverse setting


By: Anna Balk-Møller, Principal Consultant

In a study by Prosci on practices in change management, 84% of respondents rated cultural awareness as being important or very important when managing change.

However in the globalised business market, it can be argued that national cultures have decreased significance as a factor of importance. If a product or service equals a client’s needs, the interest of overseeing cultural and linguistic differences takes priority. Though that might be the case in some areas of business such as negotiation, it is not the case with change management. The main reason is that change management, is an exercise in appealing to individuals or groups of people. For this we need to consider human factors, such as cultural preferences.

So, the question is, how do we address cultural diversity to successfully manage change?

Mistake # 1: Global English is not the cure for cultural deviance

As internationalisation has become a condition for most organisations, an easy mistake is to assume that interaction between business associates can just be conducted by establishing a common ground by using a common language and implementing global processes. But cultural aspects still distinguish those involved.

Change Management is essentially about engaging people to put in the effort to learn new practices. The cognitive energy spent in the change process by far exceeds the energy spent on doing something people already know how to do. So, how do we get people to put in the extra effort change requires in their already busy workday?

We do this by building awareness about the change, creating the desire to change and ensuring that they achieve the abilities to manage the change. The essence of these disciplines is to relate the change to individuals or groups. As cultural aspects are deeply rooted in individuals, we need to be able to manage these within a change process.

Mistake #2: Reducing culture to stereotypes is ignorant

If the first mistake is to neglect the influence of culture, the second is to reproduce cultural stereotypes by thinking of culture as merely a national phenomenon. Regrettably, the complexity is far greater.

Having cultural intelligence (CQ) is not having a world map of stereotypes. Nor is it collecting tales of business contracts failing due to cultural ignorance. Cultural intelligence equals cultural awareness. It is the knowledge and curiosity about cultural variances and parallels. It requires having your antennas out and picking up on sometimes subtle signals. And it is the knowledge of how to incorporate all the relevant considerations into a change management strategy or communication plan that will produce the desired engagement of the people impacted.

Culture is both a combination of individual, national behaviours and organisational, sub-cultural or industrial preferences. Actually, it can be argued to be much more than this. But in a gallant pursuit of streamlining the complexity, these elements should be considered in the making of successful change management communications.

6 elements to consider when implementing change in an intercultural setting

  1. Conduct a cultural analysis – when assessing the impact of a change, consider the cultural aspects of the target groups. E.g. Production workers will have different characteristics in the US than in France.
  2. Diagnose yourself – awareness of cultural preferences of others requires you to be acutely aware of your own heritage. As the producer of change management strategy and communication materials, your cultural preferences play as big a part as your know-hows of past success.
  3. Don’t overdo it – the scale of the change determines the need for addressing the cultural complexity. As a rule of thumb, if the change is radical OR if it impacts the employees on a personal level, such as Job role or change in reward structure, cultural factors should be reflected.
  4. Find the landmines – cultural awareness means being sensitive to specific taboos or cultural-specific rules to avoid antipathy. Remember that even the use of change managers is not equally common in all cultures either.
  5. Look for misalignment – you might find alignments between national and organisational, sub-cultural or industrial preferences in regards to specific cultural dimensions such as e.g. power distribution. BUT be sure to look for misalignment as well. These might indicate a reduced impact of the cultural trait and help you avoid falling into a stereotype trap.
  6. One size doesn’t fit all – though it is easier to manage one global strategy, local adjustments can be what make or break how it is interpreted locally. The culturally aware change manager identifies the need for local customisations and join forces with local allies to provide customisations.

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