Attending to Culture in Leading Change

Bishop Richard Condie - 17 August 2022

In my last blog post, I encouraged leaders to be cultural historians – to learn the culture of the organisation that they are trying to lead by hearing stories of the past so they can lead at a deep level.

Organisational Culture (“the way we do things around here”) is made up of three elements. First, culture is seen through observable cultural artefacts – the way people behave, the words they use, and the actions they take (e.g., whether they use books or screens in church, the décor of the meeting spaces, and the songs they sing). Then comes the espoused values – the description of what people believe and are committed to (e.g., “we are committed to preaching and prayer”). Underlying all is the third element of culture, the unarticulated assumptions – the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs that undergird it all (e.g., we are here to defend a particular style of being Christian).

Leaders are usually trying to bring change to organisations to make them more effective in reaching their objectives. A good leader has a clear picture of the kind of future they want for the people they lead. They know the destination and realise that the group cannot remain the same if they are going to move to the new situation.

The most common mistake I see when people are trying to effect change is neglecting to think about culture in all its dimensions. We often tinker with the artefacts, the observable behaviours, because they are easy to change. We sometimes give voice to the change by articulating new values. But problems occur when we give insufficient attention to the deep unarticulated assumptions.

I remember a story of a young minister in a country town who had a very small church building with a very large wooden pulpit that dominated the space. He had a vision for growing the church and needed more space for the band and for the young families who were starting to attend. He could see the future. He told the congregation about the growth he was hoping for, articulating new values. He even spoke to the church council about rearranging the furniture including the pulpit (a cultural artefact). All seemed ready for the Saturday working bee to remove the pulpit and put it in storage to make space for more people.

But this great plan for gospel driven change came unstuck when the pulpit was loaded onto a trailer and driven down the main street of town on a lively Saturday morning. You can probably imagine what happened next. The minister discovered that, even though the pulpit was just an artefact made of wood, and even though the church council had agreed in principle to make the church more welcoming to families, the deep assumptions about the culture were something else again. The congregation was in uproar because that pulpit meant something much more to them, that they couldn’t even put into words. It was a symbol of their history, and history and tradition were much more important to their culture than making room for the band. Even though no one said it, or perhaps even recognised it, the young minister had attacked the bedrock of the culture. The pulpit was back the following week.

When we lead change, we need to delve deeply into the territory of assumptions and resist the urge to do the quick fix of just changing a couple of artefacts. These deep assumptions are very enduring and difficult to change, and challenging them unthinkingly (by tinkering with a linked artefact) will provoke a reaction that may scuttle the desired change.

A better approach to cultural change is to help people put words to their assumptions, and to examine them. One of the benefits of being a “cultural historian” – listening to the stories that people tell and observing their behaviours to try and identify the assumptions – is that we can move into this world of assumptions as we explore change. By humbly testing your theories about cultural assumptions, people can start to engage at the deeper level of culture.

Once examined, people can be willing to shift what they really believe about the nature of the organisation. If the country congregation mentioned above could gently discover that their church was more concerned about historical preservation than gospel growth, the members of that culture might be willing to build some new assumptions, out of which they might espouse new values and develop new practices (artefacts) of a changed culture. Our job as leaders is to help people make these connections and to respond appropriately.

My parents, like many in their later years, resisted change in their local church. They didn’t like the screens or the modern music that were introduced. But when we began talking about their history they began to soften. See, back in the 1950’s their minister was on the “cutting edge”. He hired the local cinema (normally seen as a den of iniquity by conservative Christians in those days) and put up a sign advertising “plain talks for the modern man”. Many people came to Christ through his innovation. Once my parents were able to connect the screens and modern music to this deep story their attitude shifted (just a little!).

There are no magic formulas here. It is not simply “work at this level of culture and change will be easy”. But by being aware of cultural complexity and making sure that we don’t make the naïve mistake of assuming culture is just what we see on the surface, we might be able to take people on a journey of change.

For more on this see:
Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Schneider, William. The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.