Change Management across Regions and Cultures

28 June 2018

From local challenges to factors aiding adoption, we take you on a quick journey through the CM world landscape.

author picture Article written by Vincent Piedboeuf

Change Management (CM) is all about the people. And people are bearers of values and beliefs. It is thus easy to understand why cultural awareness and having globally literate leaders matter so much[1]. But how does this affect Change Management in practical terms? How do idiosyncrasies play out in the field?

Take Europe for instance. Discussing emotions in the workplace proves to be somewhat difficult. As a result, individual transitions - though a critical aspect of change - are often overlooked. Having a good grasp of cultures and what they entail in terms of norms (and taboos) therefore helps adjust the actions, training and communication efforts. From local challenges to factors aiding adoption, we take you on a quick journey through the CM world landscape. Without further ado, here is an overview of the main results of a global survey conducted by PROSCI[2].

CM on a global scale: the big picture.

Roughly speaking, there is a growing awareness and demand for CM globally, with the US at the forefront and Latin America lagging a bit behind. The analysis of CM representations presents a patchier picture. Variance in perception and understanding means that CM is sometimes applied inconsistently even in places where it enjoys good visibility, such as in Australia. Intra-regional dissonances are also observed where CM awareness is emerging, like in Africa. A rather selective view of CM, conceived as a mix of communication and training activities, is prevalent in most of the Western world as well as Asia, where the autocratic management style presents a major challenge. This in turn nurtures the belief that CM is optional, fluffy or, in the worst-case scenario, insignificant.

It seems that there is still a long way to go for CM to be adequately considered beyond specific tasks. Irrespective of geographical location, time constraints and the quick pace of projects appear to be the biggest barriers to the proper implementation and completion of CM activities.


“Not a good fit for that place”?

There is no single best way to apply CM. Some activities just don’t deliver the same results everywhere:

Africa: Authority, status and reputation are important variables to take into account when considering coaching activities and getting employees truly engaged. The “need” for coaching is inherently perceived as a threat that “may reflect negatively” on managers. Beyond the fact that change is often seen as a potent destabilizing factor, employees have a hard time speaking up for fear it could be detrimental to their standing.
Asia: Described as potentially disruptive to “existing established belief, cultural and social harmony”, Change Management activities are bound to face resistances. The “collectivist culture” also makes it difficult for employees to openly engage or disagree. In this case, open forums are a poor fit. With “little interaction between higher organisational levels and frontline employees”, activities primarily targeting sponsors and managers provide mixed results.
Australia: Resistance management and change reinforcement prove to be particularly challenging, especially when entrusted to a CM team or leader sitting outside of the department (non-native). Communication also lacks fluidity as leaders usually refrain from sharing information about change whereas employees, on their end, show distrust when provided with details. It is also problematic for executives to sponsor change because the “democratic nature of organisational structures” tends to undermine their credibility. This issue is particularly stringent in government organisations.
Canada: The “culture of self-management” obstructs key activities such as executive communication and engagement as well as external coaching. As departments and groups often seem to operate independently, CM methodology may interfere with organisational competencies when too rigid.
USA: The strong emphasis on “autonomy and self-reliance” is a staple of American working culture. Coaching is perceived as a form of unwelcomed authority. As to training, self-directed activities are preferred. Top-down management style and silos also curtail CM practitioners’ influence. Often described as too rigid and complex, CM methodologies conflict with vocal minorities and autonomous groups.
Europe: Because change is not expected to be discussed, individual transitions are not given proper attention. Touching upon personal emotions conflicts with the working ethos and makes such face-to-face communications particularly difficult.

Whichever the reasons that call for major or minor tweaks in terms of CM activities, there are some cited factors that clearly aid adoption across regions. Helping people to understand “why” change is necessary and what’s in it for them makes a strong case for CM. As a proven approach with financial value, it also provides a framework to map out the impact of change on the people and implement it in a structured way. Previous experiences with change, either unsuccessful in the absence of CM, or conversely positive when supported by CM, logically weigh in the discussions. Whether it is to keep or gain a competitive edge in a given industry, a certain sense of urgency in the face of change(s) helps CM to gain traction. And career-wise, CM is sometimes described as the next step in terms for professional growth.

Let us bet that the effort to chart the impact of cultural differences on CM will also help strengthen the discipline worldwide.



[1] See PROSCI (2018) Best practices in Change Management, Part 4: Adapting and Aligning Change Management, Chapt. 15: Cultural and Change Management – Cultural awareness.

[2] See ibid. – Regional cultural considerations.

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