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Culture Shock: Work Edition

Posted on Oct. 21, 2015 at 1:30 p.m.
by Luke Thomas.

If someone told you that your entire way of doing things was about to change, you might feel the tendrils of anxiety closing around you faster than you’d like. Stress, after all, is the body’s natural response to change. To add to your worries, your ability to handle and adapt to this change could be the difference between furthering your career and filing for unemployment.

Such is the case when a company begins to change its culture. Sometimes it’s intentional: In times of scandal, shrinking profits and slumping sales, companies may begin to focus the microscope on company culture as the culprit. Other times, such as with rebranding, mergers and new leadership, the culture may change organically as part of the bigger process. Whatever the reason, people don’t always take change well. And when you’re working with getting both employees and customers to give up their old ways, it’s not always a walk in the park.

Rocky beginnings
Jill Rizzo, vice president of the McCalla, Alabama, Wells Fargo branch, experienced all sides of culture shock when her bank was purchased. Wachovia, the bank’s former company, would be replaced by the yellow, blue and red of its new owner, Wells Fargo. Rizzo was in a particularly stressful, yet insightful, position during the acquisition. She saw the effects of the rebranding from the perspective of both an employee and a manager, but also from that of someone who interacts with customers on a daily basis.

Courtesy of Tony Webster | Flickr
Courtesy of Tony Webster | Flickr

“After being an employee of Wachovia for more than 25 years, I must admit I was apprehensive and concerned when the news surfaced that Wachovia was seeking a buyer. I wondered, ‘Who might purchase the bank? Would I have a job?’ A multitude of additional thoughts and ideas ran through my head day and night,” Rizzo said.

While she did hold a high position within her branch, Rizzo wasn’t the only one concerned about the changes. She did her own research on the company seeking to emblazon its name above the door of her workplace, and several employees went so far as to visit Wells Fargo locations while on vacation and report back their findings.

Customer concern
Employees aren’t the only ones worried about change, though. Taylor Smith, a brand representative at tween apparel store Justice, said that customers can take the change harder than employees, since they’re often not given as much information on it.

Courtesy of Mike Mozart | Flickr
Courtesy of Mike Mozart | Flickr

“For a long time, we did a lot of 40 percent off promotions, and customers got used to that,” Smith said. “Now that we’ve switched instead to discounting more heavily things like jeans and essential pieces, it can be hard explaining to shoppers why the prices don’t look like they used to.”

Changes, especially when it comes to pricing, can be hard for customers to accept. Even if they may actually save more money, people tend to naturally be distrustful of change. Luckily, Justice has made some switches to help ease this transition.

“We’re becoming more focused on the girl — the real shopper,” Smith said. “We’ve started giving out stickers to girls coming in as a way to connect and learn a little about what they like to wear. You become friends in a way, and it makes helping customers much more enjoyable on both ends.”

When the dust starts to settle
At the beginning of Rizzo’s organizational change, she remembers the angst of having to learn new systems, explain to customers why things were changing, and losing some of her usual confidence in her job role.

“It seemed nothing remained the same, and I had to relearn every action, every process,” Rizzo said. “I must admit, I blamed Wells Fargo for the difficulties I endured day after day, longing for the days I could do my job blindfolded. But eventually things began to settle down around and inside me, and day by day, reluctance turned to enthusiasm.”

As she grew more familiar with the culture of her new company and its way of doing things, she began to realize that it aligned perfectly with her own values and beliefs and that tasks she had been doing for years were now easier with the new system.

“It became much more apparent to me the company I work for didn’t just care for its customers, but cared enough to simplify and streamline my job as well,” Rizzo said.

For Rizzo and Smith, life improved after their company cultures changed. The ride isn’t always so smooth, however. For example, insurance agency Aetna struggled for years to change a culture that was causing losses of $1 million per day. After hiring its fourth CEO in five years, the company was finally able to impart a lasting change by making use of a few new techniques.

Changing company culture 101:

  • Values matter. The first step in a successful culture shift involves identifying current values. Values are things that are hard to change, and when appealed to, make messages much more persuasive. By understanding what employees value, it then becomes easier to align a new culture in a way that is more likely to be accepted.
  • Consistency starts small. It can be overwhelming to try to change every little aspect about your company culture. Focus in on a few key behaviors and work from there.
  • Know what you’re good at. When you’re looking to change culture, it’s usually because whatever is in place isn’t working. However, everything has its silver lining. Don’t overlook the strengths of your company’s current culture. Instead, find ways to grow and incorporate them into the next phase.
  • Keep track of it all. What’s the last step in any PR process? Evaluation. If you can’t measure what you’ve done, what’s the point in doing it at all? Monitor the details and have a plan in place for keeping track of progress so you know your strategy is headed in the right direction.

Change is scary. But after the thrill of the new logos and the frustration of the new operating systems pass, a corporate rebranding can do much more help than harm. When it comes to changing an identity, the key concept to keep in mind is that you’re all in this together.

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