Why culture transformation is integral to organisational transformation

Organisational Change
Paul Slezak

It was my first time going onsite at this particular company.

I had been referred to the CEO and she had invited me in to discuss either a series of coaching programs and/or perhaps running a workshop for five of her leaders.

There was a sign on the counter of the otherwise empty front reception desk that read, “Please ring bell for assistance”. After a few minutes, someone appeared from behind a side door and walked me through the open plan office and showed me into a meeting room and told me that Alisha wouldn’t be long.

Looking out from the fishbowl-style meeting room while I waited for Alisha, I could see lots of people hard at work but there was nobody walking around all – not to the kitchen, the photocopier, not even to the bathroom. No one popped up from their desk to chat to their neighbour. It actually reminded me of the study room in a public library where there might be “Shhh … Quiet Please”, “Silence”, or “No Talking” signs on the partitions between every desk.

I mentioned this to Alisha once we had gone through our more formal introductions which was when she explained that she had intentionally not shared a key piece of information with me when we had initially spoken briefly on the phone. She admitted that she thought it might have put me off.  

A few weeks ago, as part of a national restructure, around 150 people had been let go from the business including 60 team members from this particular office. Although the floor we were meeting on was full, apparently the two floors above were now a complete ghost town. Following the layoffs, Alisha had made the decision to have everyone work together on the one floor.

“As soon as we can get out of this lease, we’ve got to find something new”, she said.

Whilst I had been unaware as to what had gone down, as soon as I walked in, it had still been very obvious that something wasn’t quite right.

“This place used to be buzzing with activity”, Alisha said. “In fact, sometimes it was so loud it reminded me of a trading floor. And now? Crickets”.

Alisha hoped that either through 1:1 coaching or maybe a group session, I would be able to help her senior leadership team (those who had survived the cutbacks) re-align or re-calibrate (I can’t remember the exact word she used) and ultimately remotivate their teams to bring some life back into the organisation.

Of course I would be able to help. In fact, we agreed to start with a half-day workshop for the five leaders and then give them the option of individual coaching sessions. However, as I shared with Alisha, there was a more pressing issue which would be up to her to initiate and drive from the top – the idea of rebuilding culture following a restructure.

We’ve written about it before, but while some companies plan for a restructure (the actual redundancies) very well, they don’t always think about what (work)life is going to be like following the layoffs – i.e in the ‘new normal’.

So how can you focus on creating a post-redundancy culture?

While restructuring often aims to streamline operations, improve efficiency, and foster innovation, its success hinges not only on structural changes but also on the transformation of organisational culture.

Culture, often described as the shared values, beliefs, and behaviours that define an organisation, is a powerful force that shapes how individuals within a company perceive and respond to change. When a company goes through a restructure, whether due to shifts in market dynamics, technological advancements, or other strategic imperatives, the impact on the workforce is profound.  

While cultural transformation recognises the need to prioritise the well-being of employees during times of change, safeguarding the heart of the organisation, one should never underestimate the significant impact layoffs can have on the morale and engagement of the remaining employees.  

Employee morale is especially vulnerable following a restructure, with uncertainty and fear often prevailing.

As I explained to Alisha, regardless of what I would cover in a leadership workshop or during individual coaching sessions, it was up to her to re-build the organisational culture to provide employees with a sense of purpose and belonging. After all, when team members feel connected to a shared (albeit revised) mission, they are more likely to weather the challenges brought up by a restructure with resilience and determination.

Effective communication is paramount during times of change, and cultural transformation reinforces a commitment to open and transparent communication.

It certainly wasn’t too late and I encouraged Alisha to create platforms for dialogue, allowing employees to express concerns, seek clarity, and actively participate in the ‘post-change’ process. I reinforced how open communication builds trust, dispels rumours, and ensures that everyone is on the same page regarding the organisation’s goals and the rationale behind the restructure.

Authenticity starts at the top, and leaders who demonstrate a commitment to the culture they promote following a round of redundancies build trust among employees.

By approaching post-restructure cultural initiatives with sincerity, organisations can mitigate the risk of the remaining employees viewing the culture push as insincere. Building trust and demonstrating a genuine commitment to positive change will contribute to the long-term success of cultural transformation efforts.

Silos and fragmentation often emerge during restructuring, hindering collaboration and teamwork. Cultural transformation initiatives that emphasise collaboration, shared goals, and a sense of unity help break down these barriers.

Beyond being a mere reaction to change, cultural transformation should be viewed as a proactive strategy that helps shape the organisation’s ‘new identity’.

In essence, cultural transformation can’t simply be a reaction to organisational change; it needs to deliberately support the organisation’s vision, mission and strategic objectives, thereby shaping the success and sustainability of the redefined organisation.

As was evident in Alisha’s company, when a business experiences a large round of layoffs, the ripple effects on culture can be profound. The upheaval caused by the redundancies will no doubt disrupt any pre-existing cultural equilibrium. It is at this juncture that cultural transformation emerges as a necessary tool for leaders to navigate the challenges and uncertainties that accompany the restructure.

When all is said and done, neglecting cultural transformation after layoffs can have widespread repercussions, affecting employee morale, turnover rates, collaboration, innovation, and the overall effectiveness of the organisation. Proactive leadership that prioritises and invests in building a positive culture is essential for navigating the challenges of restructuring successfully.

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