Leading Change in an Anti-Change Culture

By Mark Graybill

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Leading change can be touchy and difficult. How often have you felt the pressure from peers, whether implicitly or explicitly, to downplay an idea that might lead to positive change?

If it happens to you often, the organizational culture around you may lean against change.  In fact, I have written on fundamental tendencies in human nature called homeostasis that could lead us in that direction naturally.

The question is: what are you promoting?

Leading Change

Piggybacking on Dr. Mary Kayr’s article What Type of Leadership Culture are You Promoting?, I’d like to discuss a couple of features of an anti-change culture to add understanding in context.

Consider McGregor’s Theory-X style of management, the Old School Culture Dr. Whitaker referred to in her article:

This culture is based on good, old-fashioned fear of that one person who has the power to make you or break you work-wise: the boss.

The reason why he or she is feared? Because the old-school culture believes that people need to be managed. Not like employees but like children who need to be watched and blamed when they have made a mistake. Managers and employees have little trust in each other.

My research focus over the last 10+ years has been to understand the fundamentals and underlying patterns of human nature prevalent in many contexts I have experienced, including such patterns as the one Dr. Whitaker refers to.

This pattern can be tied to the fundamental of seeking power or dominance.


The resulting patterns of the tendency to seek power or dominance have been referred to with terms such as Machiavellianism, bullying, and managerial control, depending on the vantage point.

Unless leaders are the ones who innovate and produce, such patterns are antagonistic to change and thus thwart the development of Ahead of The Curve cultures, as Dr. Mary Kay put it.

In fact, to the leaders I train to replace me (training one’s replacement is one of my core leadership principles), I make the point to always remember who is producing (not the managers).

Threat/Risk Avoidance

Another fundamental pattern antagonistic to change is threat/risk avoidance.

The interesting thing is that threat/risk avoidance is often the other side of the power coin.  When they come hand-in-hand, the subjectivity of the manager can naturally produce favorites where only those favorites are expected (and thus encouraged) to innovate and to produce change.

If you employ this coin in a tenure culture, which is where you have to earn the credit to dissent, often through years of absolutely no dissent, you have a recipe for a culture that is largely against change.

Even the most enthusiastic employee, if “beaten” down long enough, can lose enthusiasm in such a culture.

Anti-Change Culture

In an anti-change culture, you may witness that rationale against an idea requires no evidence, but if there is any evidence for the idea, it is largely ignored.

Granted, such is a fundamental pattern of human nature, but when it is strong enough, attempting to foster change can be futile.

In fact, those seasoned in such a culture may explain their experience in the culture as evidence, which they may wield as a sort of badge of honor.

Gaining such experience as learning how to demonstrate bureaucratic sophistry in rationalizing why not is a cultural feature Edgar Schein calls an embedded skill that one only learns through experiencing trial and error (reward and punishment) in the culture.

When this skill is a critical one for surviving socially, the culture is almost doomed to never see the change it needs.

A tell-tale sign is when demonstrating this skill is an implicit requisite for showing you’re one of the team and ultimately the privilege to dissent someday. By that time, the cogs of dissent might be too rusty.

Resist or Accept

The important thing to understand is that we make “gist associations” between people and/or behavior and our learned programming to resist or accept an idea.  They are simply triggers or automatically-connected sensory stimuli and resulting patterns of neuronal firing.

In short, when the program is to shoot down ideas, it is very difficult to champion change.

How do we lead change in such a culture? Leading change is more than leading the change itself; it is leading the culture you have influence over so as to be conducive to innovation that can produce the necessary change.

As you know, and as I have alluded to already, this is easier said than done.

It starts with understanding fundamentals and then employing fundamental processes to override such tendencies.  I’m talking about both personal and group thought processes.

The Score Card

I recommend the scorecard approach. It is something that reasonable people have a hard time resisting. It is a process where the rationale for and against an idea is captured as a matter of data capture.

Then each rationale is discussed and scored.

Questions I like to ask, which I ask a lot of myself, are: What are the worst and best-case scenarios? What evidence do I have for or against the rationale? Is the rationale just a typical neurological association, or can I produce an example of sufficient likeness to back it up? Am I being overly pessimistic or overly optimistic?

This could be used in group settings, in a one-on-one discussion, or in your own mind as you consider new ideas you or others produce.

You might also consider this with a brainstorming process. The goal here is to engage critical thinking and approach new ideas in a way that is orthogonal to the aforementioned skill.

If you keep a sufficiently positive and win-win demeanor as you do this, you will eventually influence change.

We can either be drawn by the threat-avoidance side of us to resist change, or the exploitative side of us can draw us to the exciting prospect of innovating change.

As a leader, what side of the human nature coin are you promoting? Do you lead by power? Or do you lead by empowerment?

How Are You Leading Your Change Culture?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Mark Graybill
Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
  • chris rozell says:

    I have experienced others’ resistance to culture change and this thought process could help those inclined to resist.

  • Patricia Samuels-Cameron says:

    They are varying leadership styles and every leader has to lead by his or her own style. I hope to lead by incorporating the three traditional theories of leadership. Trait approach – identify particular personality or behavioral characteristics shared by leaders. Behavioral approach – focus on the actions of leaders not on mental qualities or internal states, and the belief that great leaders are made, not born. Contingency approach – proposed to take into account the role of the situation in the exercise of leadership, no leadership style is best in all situations. Effective leaders not only possess the ability to manage and develop, they are great at persuading others.

  • John Awute says:

    It is a good piece. I live by empowerment: I always want to remain the matches that lit the candles(direct reports). A true leader is a leader whose absence never creates a vacuum.

  • John Awute says:

    To lead a change in an anti-change culture, you must first know the fear of the people and gradually effect step by step changes. It calls for highly disciplined mind to achieve result in organisations where change seems to be a taboo.

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