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This mini-case study is part of our Culture-in-Action Series.

Without exception, cultures in organizations are shocked. Culture shock, by definition, comes to organizations like “lightning strikes”. No leader can anticipate how his or her organization will experience shocks to the culture of the organization they lead; they can, however, build a culture with sufficient integrity, strength and resiliency to handle the shocks when they occur.

A few examples of shocks to a culture are:

-mergers and acquisitions

-down-turns in related economies or down-turns in the fortunes of the organization specifically

-sudden departures of key leaders

-an unexpected competitive threat

-layoffs and related reductions in the work force

-a disruptive innovation threatens a business plan and strategy

-changes in related governing regulations add laws

-discontinuation of a product, service or program

The reactions and related questions of the people of the organization are predictable.

-“What does this mean for us and ME?”

-“Did our leaders see this coming and if they did, what could have been done to prevent a problem?”

-“How bad is this?”

-“What will our Leadership do when?”

-“What do I need to do now?”

Keystone Culture Group Case Vignette:

Just as in the NFL, senior leaders in organizations turnover. In fact, the average length of tenure for a health system CEO is now about equal to that of an NFL head coach. Turnover occurs for a variety of reasons. The “shock” to organizations is, however, manageable, if the culture of the organization is strong and well prepared; especially for the unforeseen “sudden event”.

When in such circumstances, the culture shock management plan must be based upon a five-step plan:

Step 1: Leadership acknowledges that the event is important, it must be attended to timely and it was unexpected.

Step 2: The organization will always be subject to the unexpected. That is why the organization is guided by a stable, engaged and competent governing board and senior leadership team that holds the ultimate responsibility for the direction, vision, mission, values, culture and long-term strategy of the organization.

Step 3: The major strategic goals of the organization are affirmed.

Step 4: There is a person appointed to serve in an “acting role”. That appointment will be guided by an assigned group of trusted leaders to ensure that the direction of the company remains on-course.

Step 5: As the next, required set of decisions are being made, lines of communication are open for all to express their opinions and concerns, to be delivered through the existing chain of command. All designated leaders within the organization have been directed to facilitate such communications.

Culture shock is inevitable in all organizations. Leaders in organizations should not be surprised by the unexpected. They must be prepared for it. It is a component of the “price” of doing business. The central issue is how shocks to the culture of organizations are embraced and managed by leaders. How staff see leaders manage culture shock is one measure of leadership in organizations.

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