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Trevor E. S. Smith | Misguided leadership, culture, and employee engagement

Published:Sunday | June 30, 2019 | 12:00 AM

As new leadership took over, they revoked a number of privileges.

They sent a clear message – it would not be business as usual.

They set about imposing a totally alien culture.

How would you respond?

What would be your reaction as a member of staff who is now being subjected to this changed approach?

Would you be excited that the organisation was being shaken up?

Would you be upset that the flexibility you enjoyed has been taken away without any discussion?

Would you challenge the approach openly?

Would you resist passively and find ways to beat the system covertly?

Would this prompt you to actively seek alternative employment?


The scenario above relates to an actual situation that is being played out.

It sheds light on challenges related to leadership, the equally important response of followers and the influence of culture.


Leaders oftentimes underestimate the importance of culture when instituting change. That can be a costly mistake, as the change initiative is derailed.

Leaders who want to institute measures that impact the usual way of operating, must take care to evaluate the nature and the strength of the opposing forces, as well as the cultural environment.

For example, are trends outside the organisation aligned with the actions that they are taking?

Can they sell their strategy on the basis that similar actions are being taken by trendsetting organisations?

Alternatively, will external evidence highlight the fact that the planned policies are archaic and counterproductive?

Leaders must evaluate their strategy in the context of the cultural environment.


There is a framework developed by Geert Hofstede that can provide insightful guidance to leaders as to the likely response to culture-change initiatives.

It is also interesting to see which dimension most closely reflects your outlook.

The approach taken in the situation above has its best chance of being accepted (at least overtly) in a cultural environment in which there is what Hofstede identifies as high power distance.

In that context, employers wield exceptional power and employees would ‘know their places’. They would just do as they are told.

Does this apply to you?

The degree of Individualism could also work in favour of the new approach.

To the extent that the staff is more concerned about themselves than the group or organisation, they might look to secure their own future at the expense of their colleagues.

This ‘selling out’ of one’s own colleagues is not unheard of, and has been used to keep people in subjection.

The challenge, however, is that individualism also comes with a need for independence and freedom to explore opportunities for personal growth.

The regimentation that the new leaders are implementing runs counter to the strong need for autonomy.

Another mixed bag relates to what Hofstede identifies as uncertainty avoidance.

In environments in which there is high uncertainty avoidance, people prefer to avoid conflict and authority tends to be accorded respect. Rules are favoured.

The downside would be the fact that people in those environments are not keen to go through change. With change comes uncertainty.

However, since the change here is intended to introduce structure and defined roles, they might welcome the new approach.

Where do you stand? How do you feel about uncertainty?

Would you prefer flexibility or rather have clear structure?


Leaders ignore culture at the national, organisational and group levels at their own peril.

Cultural norms are difficult to overturn. Tread carefully.

But does that mean that leaders are stuck with situations that are in desperate need of drastic change?

No. Disruption is required at times. However, even then, it makes sense to research the culture to determine what influences will be at play.

It makes sense to identify the forces that will be aligned to your change initiative, and the nature and strength of the forces of resistance.

Armed with that information, you can craft a communication strategy that has a better chance of success.


Leaders need to be thoughtful, informed and strategic. Being able to apply frameworks related to culture and its implications is an important competence.

That is one of the competencies that we transfer to leaders in our 3-D Leader certification programme.

For more information, send an email to

- Trevor E. S. Smith/Success with People Academy Interpersonal relations and performance-enhancement specialists. Providing human capacity development and technology-driven solutions. Email: