Culture Change, Newton and the Grand Canyon (Yes, They’re All Related)

Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything, Organizational Culture

Think about the last time you walked on a beach. It was probably a bright, beautiful day. You could feel the warmth of the sun on your skin. Everything was picture perfect. Lovely … Enjoy the memory.

Now think about the actual physical experience of walking on that beach. You might remember that every time you placed your foot down, the weight of your body displaced the loose sand until your foot sank to a more solid level of sand that could sustain your weight. Then your foot stopped sinking. As you took your next stride, you pushed your foot and leg backward in order to move your body forward. This is Newton’s third law of motion at work.

Here’s what that law says: If an Object A exerts a force on Object B, then Object B must exert a force of equal magnitude and opposite direction back on Object A.

Or, more informally, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

In our beach example, your foot (Object A) exerts a force on the sand (Object B). The result of that force is the sand gets displaced. Your foot sinks into the sand until the more-solid sand below exerts an equal and opposite force upward. You know that is happening when you stop sinking in the sand. As you stride forward, your foot pushes backward on the sand. The sand’s equal and opposite reaction pushing back on your foot moves you forward.

“OK, Gustavo,” you’re thinking at this point. “How does this apply to changing workplace culture?”

When we talk about the third law in terms of workplace culture, the initial force is the new force you apply to create a change. For example, perhaps you create a new performance evaluation system to counteract complacency and mediocrity. The equal and opposite force will be employees’ resistance to change.

So if resistance is to be expected, how can we overcome it? There are two ways:

  1. Understand the resistance.  One of the most common statements I hear when creating a change in workplace culture is, “People just resist change.”  I believe this is a misunderstanding of human behavior. People don’t resist change. People resist loss. If you go to an employee who makes $50,000 per year and tell them, “Congratulations! Your new salary is $100,000!” that’s a change most people will not resist! Managers often think employees resist change because they fear losing compensation or their jobs. But much more often than not, the resistance is about the fear of losing things like influence, power, control, authority, comfort, competence or certainty. To reduce resistance to changing your workplace culture, you must first understand what employees fear losing. This reduces the “equal and opposite” force working against the change.
  2. Be consistent. When a rocket moves from Earth to space, it must expel gases to provide the thrust to break free from Earth’s gravity. It does so with a huge magnitude of force but also with consistency. The rocket engines don’t turn on and off. They’re on until the ship is free from Earth’s gravity. When it comes to changing human behavior, we don’t have anything like the force or magnitude of a rocket engine. What we do have is consistency. If you understand the resistance and address it consistently — not just once or twice — the resistance will wear down over time.

Think about any resistance in your organization as a big, granite mountain. Now think of consistency as water running over that granite rock. Can water change the shape of granite? Well, that’s how the Grand Canyon was shaped. Thankfully, reshaping your culture won’t take that long. But it will take understanding resistance and consistency.

If you have questions on this post or any previous post, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.