Culture, identity, and change

A jigsaw puzzle collage of multi-racial, multi-generational faces; one piece is pulled out and shows a group of hands clasped in the center.All change is culture change.

And all culture includes identity.

Two simple statements with a lot to consider. Let’s unpack them.

All change is culture change

This one is fairly simple to explain, though not so simple in practice.

Any time you change how something is done – whether it’s a systems change, a process change, a reorganization, new technology, a direct desire to change the culture, or a random external event (pandemic, anyone?) – any change to the way anything is done – it affects the culture.

And culture can be remarkable inflexible. It’s got tremendous inertia and tends to keep going exactly how it’s been going.

Which is why change – which, remember is always culture change – can be so difficult, take so much time, and be so challenging to get right.

Any change can, and probably will, run into the inflexibility of culture.

All culture includes identity

Your culture has an embedded sense of identity. In fact, identity is a significant component of your culture.

This is true no matter what change you’re attempting – no matter whether you’re trying to change the culture, undertaking some other type of change initiative, or being impacted by external forces. And it’s true even if you don’t typically pay a lot of attention to your culture – which, of course, is a problem in itself.

“This is how we do things around here.” Identity.

Spoken or unspoken rules of behavior? Identity.

Traditions, rituals, origin stories? Identity.

Values and meaning? Absolutely identity, whether or not the written statements about values and meaning align with how people actually behave.

(If they don’t align? Still identity; it’s just a different identity than one might prefer.)

Culture, identity, and change

All change is culture change. All culture includes identity.

Thus, if you want to create change, you’d better have a solid understanding of the current corporate identity – what it really is, not what marketing or PR or your website says it is. And you’d better know how that identity is embedded in and creates your culture.

Because attempts to create change that appear to threaten identity do not go well – and that’s not just a theory; it’s backed by research demonstrating that “Unless [leaders] are able to ensure people that what defines the organization’s identity – ‘what makes us who we are’ – will be preserved despite the changes, leaders may have to brace themselves for a wave of resistance.” (Harvard Business Review article – click here to read)

It might seem like a lot of up-front work if you’re just getting started with a change initiative. But it’s up-front work that saves a lot of stress, struggle, and potential failure down the line.

So … how do you determine what the identity IS? That’s a great question, and I love when clients ask this. Want to explore? Contact me and we’ll set a time to talk!