We’ve all been in organizations where leadership seems to be butting heads. It’s common for individuals to have their own perspective on the culture of an organization. It’s even more understandable when ownership or executives have an idea on how culture should be adapted within their own organization. But what happens when culture organically starts to change the environment of the organization and leadership either wasn’t ready for it or doesn’t want it? For many start-ups, culture is immediately established. Even before a great product is created, many executives will focus on establishing a strong company culture. Forbes says “When headcount is in single digits, founders, CEOs, and first employees sit and talk through every decision together. The problems are simpler, the communication more direct – and there’s less ambiguity about what’s important and how to act.” It’s true when companies are first forming, everyone has a common interest to succeed and work together to accomplish such goals. However, over time as the company grows, culture starts to be formed either organically or through a series of rules introduced by management to help established order. Over time, this newly formed culture becomes the norm and employees either adapt or leave.
For many new companies, some of the first employees will start to vacate because the organization lost its “start-up” feel. For other first employees, they stick around because they have seniority, which usually comes with benefits, promotions, and decision-making power. Historically, at some point something will happen where the company will have to adapt a new culture. Somewhere around the fifty-employee mark, executives will start to evaluate the direction and environment they are trying to retain as an organization. In many cases, new managers or executives will be hired that brings new perspective to the organization and this may cause the Culture War to begin.
People hate change. In fact, it takes very rare individuals who can adapt to change easily and quickly. According to Heidi Grant Halvorson of the Huffington Post, people believe that if they’ve been doing something long enough then it must be the right way, and if change is introduced then their way must be wrong. Traditionally managers and executives, who lack the flexibility of adapting to change, will fight back and in some cases will eventually phase out if they don’t adapt. What’s interesting is employees traditionally are followers of change. They accept change as a benefit of growth because in many cases it’s related to a stronger relationship between the employee and the company. Managers and executives are typically the ones afraid of change. They fear change means they will be phased out, they will have to do something different, they’re afraid they can’t change to the new ideology of what’s considered right. These are all fears driven by change. When these individuals don’t adapt then they go on defense and fight back. Culture Wars begins when someone doing something different and others start to follow. When the opposition sees this, they start to create allies and will slowly eat away at what positive change can be made.
It’s essential to identify these culture wars in the beginning and weed out the possibilities of war beginning within your organization. Top-level executives need to determine what direction the organization is headed in and make sure everyone is on the same page. At any reference of negativity, it needs to be dealt with before the culture war organically starts to form and sides are established. I’ve seen this happen from companies of all sizes and what traditionally happens is either the new leaders of culture will leave the organization because they don’t want to deal with the drama of war or the old leaders will fight for long periods of time establishing the front lines and creating allies. This will ultimately lead to either a mass exodus or the new leaders eventually giving up and leaving. In both instances, time, talent, and growth were lost. Culture wars are serious and it’s essential to negotiate and discuss surrendering early instead of later.