Driving change in other countries: check your assumptions

You have been asked by your company to drive a major change process, that affects the way of working in various local operations. So after many headquarter meetings on the ins and outs of the change process, you pack your suitcase and start your mission to convince people of the need for change. Once there, you suddenly feel that the task that’s on your shoulders is very heavy: how the hell can you convince people here to change their way of working? Who are you anyway to tell them? You’ll need to do some deep thinking upfront, to increase the chances of success.

Change1I have recently been involved in a few change processes and did a lot of study on successful change practices. It’s fascinating. We all know how many change initiatives fail. And even when pushed hard, we find it difficult to come up with an example of really good change practice from our own work history. One often cited reason for failure is that the change that had been so well designed by the management fails when the organization is incapable of implementing it properly. The underlying thought seems to be: “We as management have defined the strategy and our task is completed; now you need to take it up and make it successful.” Only to conclude later that “They didn’t take it up.”

The change process this applies to was subject to a few assumptions:

1.  The management is in the best position to decide what the desired state will look like.

2. Deployment is a process that runs top-down.

3. The lower levels in the company are not involved in the definition of the desired state: they should merely execute what the top has decided to deploy.

These assumptions – although well known – are false, and especially in intercultural change processes (headquarters tries to change the way-of-working in one of the subsidiaries) they need to be thought through very well upfront.



  1. The management is in the best position to decide what the desired state will look like

In many cultures, being in the best position to do something is a matter of power and status whereas, in other cultures, your influence is largely defined by your personal capability to influence people, or by your technical skills. In cultures where hierarchy in the workplace is taken very seriously (power distance in combination with uncertainty avoidance, like Russia, China, France, Germany, Austra, Switzerland), it is obvious that you have to be high in the hierarchy to be able to define the direction of change. Employees from these countries will not use their personal influence to change the way of working when they do not have the formal power. In countries such as China, India, Mexico and Portugal, important company decisions are taken at the very top of the organization. The situation in which any employee can drive change “as long as he has good ideas and makes these heard” is not understood in these cultures: it is simply not your role and not in your power to be involved in important major tasks like initiating change.

In other countries – characterized by individualism and low power distance, such as the US, Canada and Australia – any person can decide what the desired state should look like. In these countries, the assumption is that you do not need a formal position to be able to influence the direction of the company.

Interestingly, there even is a group of countries, such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, in which a low power distance is combined with an individualistic attitude and low masculinity. Here we see a reluctance (or even skepticism) to believe that management can define what is good for the company anyway. Employees in these cultures will expect to be seriously involved in defining the change, and they will speak up – and sometimes sabotage – when not properly involved.

  1. Deployment is a process that runs top-down

Most change models are based on the assumption that – once change has been defined – the deployment phase starts, in which the whole organization needs to be convinced that it has to work in a different way. This model fits high power distance cultures, where it is natural that the highest layers in the company define the change, and the lower layers follow and implement without questioning. The model also fits the US. Here, change is deployed and implemented following a so-called ‘tell and sell’ model: the management decide on the changes and drive the deployment, while the lower levels follow and adjust their working processes. In the US, people ask “what’s in it for me?” when confronted with the changes. For management, this means they have to pay attention to organizing the right conditions for implementing the change, such as relating personal bonuses to an adoption of the new way of working, making sure everybody understands his career prospects, etc.

Asian cultures on the other hand generally accept that the highest management take the decisions on change and initiate the implementation process. However, making sure the new work processes are implemented at the lowest levels of the organization is a very collectivistic process, where much information is shared within the group and where people take collective responsibility to make sure that everybody in their group understands and accepts the new way of working.





3. The lower levels in the company are not involved in the definition of the desired state: they simply execute what the top has decided to deploy

This links closely to the previous assumptions, and relates to the way the new way of working is deployed. The decision-making step is either participative (for individuals in the company, as in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, or for experts in countries like Germany and Austria) or one-way (management decides, lower levels execute. For a manager implementing change, it is important to realize the extent to which individuals expect to be involved in the change process:

  • Involve them at a very early stage, solicit their input, and make them part of taking decisions (the Netherlands, Scandinavia).
  • Involve them in an early stage in order to get the right (expert-based) opinions, although management make the final decision and do not have to justify these decisions publicly (Germany, Austria, US).
  • Involve them in a later stage after all decisions have been taken, and set a clear course and give instructions for deployment (Mexico, China, India).

So what should you do when deciding on your own role in a change process?

  • Study your own assumptions about change: to what extent are these similar to the 3 assumptions stated above, and what are your personal expectations about the way change is to be organized? In particular, decide whether you will focus on the individual work processes or on the overall result.
  • Decide on your change strategy: do you want compliance or do you want input from the organization to help design the optimal change? You should be very clear on this choice. Being really open for dialogue requires a modest mindset: you need to be really open for the input that others provide. Are you really? Only then will the participative style of driving change be successful. However, when you have firmly decided on the required change already, do not pretend that you want everyone to participate and give his input, as this is simply not what you want. You want compliance.
  • What are the assumptions of the people in your team: are these similar to or different from yours? Where different, you will need to understand the expectations of people who are affected by the change. And understanding means asking lots of questions, not explaining the rationale of the change over and over.

The above article is a shortened version of a full chapter on ‘Managing Change across Cultures’, in my book Managing Through a Mirror.

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