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Rapid Culture Change Is Possible

Most management books will tell you that culture change is extremely difficult and takes a long time. While that is often true, I know firsthand that culture can change almost overnight.

June 21, 2012

I've been thinking about "culture change" recently because rapid social and technological changes, game-changing regulations, and globalization are putting a lot of pressure on the workplace.

Most management books will tell you that culture change is extremely difficult and takes a long time. While that is often true, I know firsthand that culture can change almost overnight--and understanding how it happened might teach us how to speed up the process in our organizations.

As I recently wrote, I graduated fromHamilton College in 1972 having started in the fall of 1968. Since roughly 1812, the college had been an all-male institution developing standards and traditions reflecting its cloistered, single sex, small-college and "establishment" environment.

When I arrived, we mostly wore button-down shirts, blue jeans or straight-legged khakis. We put on jackets for dinner.

Before the fall of 1968 when I arrived, females were a rare and special presence on "the Hill," as we called our isolated community. Women visiting freshmen had to be out of the dorms early; slightly later if visiting upper classmen. From what I could tell, most women who did visit dressed very conservatively, matching theHamilton men's style.

Within two weeks of my arrival at Hamilton, those standards started disappearing. An all-female school (Kirkland College), with an independent, adventurous student body, opened up across the road from Hamilton.

Suddenly, about 150 women lived close by. We shared meals and classes with them. The Kirkland women dressed casually, generated their own social conventions, and had, as a group, little patience for traditions that they saw as impractical and archaic. They questioned assumptions and made us question ourselves.

Many of us bonded with them and started throwing off old traditions quickly. We stopped wearing jackets to meals. For many, straight-leg pants gave way to bell bottoms, and neckties to love beads.

By the end of my first semester, Hamilton loosened limitations on when women could visit our dorms. By the end of the first year, those rules disappeared entirely. Our view of the world and our actions changed quickly, too.

I'm sure that all of us can think of instances of rapid culture change, perhaps driven by dramatic and painful events—just think of how quickly spending habits in America changed in recent years. But changes that arise from negative circumstances, even if necessary, are often met with fear, anxiety, resentment and even anger.

What I've learned by comparing my Hamilton/Kirkland experience to changes caused by crises is that change for positive reasons is a lot easier and lot less painful. Our role as business leaders is to make sure that the changes we want to see are attractive to those who have to adapt their behavior. We need to emphasize the positive reasons for a change so employees won't fear or resist it but will voluntarily adapt on their own.

Looking for positive incentives in line with business objectives that benefit individuals and teams is the surest way I know to generate long-standing adaptations.