The Ghost of Cultures Past

roots of culture

One of the unfortunate consequences of leadership churn, mergers and acquisitions and failed projects is that they leave behind remnants of cultures past. These ghosts of the past can come back to haunt culture change initiatives and current change projects.

You can catch glimpses of the ghost of culture past by listening carefully and observing behaviors. When people are showing resistance to change there may be elements of the past culture that is haunting them and holding them back. The ghosts of culture past is especially present in Mergers and Acquisitions when the people side of change is poorly managed.

For example, insurance company employees had three different leaders in four years which created an environment where change was met with a “wait and see” attitude. The employees who had significant tenure looked back on the good old days and believed they could “out wait” the new leader and any change he wanted to create. When the new leader introduced a centralized model for key processes, they stubbornly clung to the past ways of doing things because they thought that it would trump any change a new leader attempted. They reminisced about the last time someone tried to make that change, remembered how it failed and lived in the belief that the past culture would prevail.

Another culture ghost is haunting a technology company who is a “mashup” of four different companies. They didn’t take the time to become one company united in a company purpose or vision so there is internal strife, competition and a reduction in the productivity potential. It was so bad that one of the comments on an internal culture survey was:

Cutting directly to the chase, change whatever needs to change for the XYZ office to stop hating us.  We’ve been one company for almost three years, and have been trying hard to work together across locations, but still, to this very day, we hear very hurtful things said about us by people in the XYZ office, even by people we thought shared mutual respect.  I don’t care if we’re not friends.  I don’t even care if they like me, as long as we’re able to effectively work together.  I would even prefer if they would just be “up front” with us about it, rather than waiting until they hang up the phone to make their comments and rude gestures.”

Another example of the past haunting the present is an M&A situation where the acquiring company went through a particularly difficult acquisition process. They acquired a company that wanted to be left alone for many good reasons. They saw that they could experience value erosion if they used the normal integration process so they empowered the company to run stand-alone until they grew to become materially significant and had to be rushed through a painful and rapid integration. They are going through another acquisition where taking time to integrate would minimize value erosion in the deal. However, the pain of that previous integration is causing executives to react to the ghost of the past deal and they are accelerating the integration despite warning signs that the newly acquired company could implode without the appropriate transition plan. Since a hundred million dollars is immaterial to the acquiring company there is less impetus to recognize the damage of the haunted response.

Symptoms of ghosts from cultures past are evident in all three examples. In the first situation, the ghost slowed the progress and caused significant resistance to change. In the second story, the ghosts of multiple cultures were creating internal confusion and frustration. Finally, the ghost of the past experience left an indelible culture imprint (this isn’t how we are going to do things here) and causing executives to react in a way that could compromise the business case.

Managing Culture Ghosts

  1. Honor the Past. While the past isn’t something to cling to, it’s important to understand the impact of the past. Value what’s good and use it as a leverage point to build on in order to honor those who hold that near and dear. In the case of the insurance company, the new leader took time to get to know the organization. He made sure that he listened to the voices, respected the past and built on the strength of what came before him. That meant he connected the vision for the future with the success of the past. This helped the employees understand the connection between where they were and where they needed to go. They felt respected and understood which gave them courage to move forward into a strategic future that demanded a lot of change. Three years into the implementation of a new strategy, growth has exploded from 2% to 22%! Have you denigrated the past to get to the future or celebrated it to move forward faster?
  1. Get a reality check on the current culture. There are many assessments and tools that provide language and data to understand what’s going on right now. Many times, the whispers of the ghost of past culture is evident in the data. Invest in the tools, conversations and focus groups that give you a clear picture of what’s present. Sometimes what a leader believes about culture is impacted by the ghosts of his or her past culture. They are bringing bias and views that color their perspective of an organization. Know what you are dealing with and find out how you can make a positive impact. A leader’s behaviors create impact that can increase or decrease their effectiveness. Understanding the culture gives context and can improve effectiveness. Think of Undercover Boss, what would you do differently if you really knew what was going on in your organization?
  1. Know where the culture came from, where it is now and what the future holds. A leader needs to understand the culture of the past, the present culture and their future ideal culture. Each of these vantage points has value. Where you came from is about roots or heritage, it gives context to the organizational struggles and successes. You can appreciate how the organization was developed and where it may haunt the present. Where you are now gives a starting point for any change or vision. Without clarity about where you are, you are lost before you begin. You can’t get somewhere without knowing where you are. When you map directions, you need a starting point. This is what clarity on current culture provides. Where you want to go and how you want your culture to become is a critical anchor to hold you accountable. Are you clear on all three perspectives of your culture?

Charles Dickens classic tale, A Christmas Carol, was the inspiration for this article. Whether you are a leader or someone impacted by culture, I hope that you are inspired to examine all the culture ghosts and use them to achieve greater levels of success in all that you do. Understand your impact and make the world a better place because you are in it.

Happy Holidays!

“I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

a christmas carol

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Vice President, Brighton Leadership Group

Scott Beilke is Vice President at Brighton Leadership Group, a consultancy that helps leaders create flourishing workplaces by developing constructive cultures of speed and agility, creating healthy environments that attract and retain top talent and growing authentic leaders whose people power extraordinary performance. He is a strategic advisor to executive teams and boards of large, mid-market and emerging organizations throughout the world. He is a contributing author to the 2014 book - Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, and a founding faculty member of

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