Is It Possible?

The new CEO at Xerox “wants its 130,000 employees to get over the past, take more initiative, become more fearless and be more frank and impatient with one another to ratchet up performance.”  Good luck.

She is not the only executive who has wanted to energize their company’s employees, make them more independent and outspoken.  In this case, she has the advantage of not asking others to do what she can’t do herself, according to an account in Sunday’s New York Times.  Her own history at Xerox demonstrates the boldness and courage she wants to develop in others. But does she know how hard it is to get others to change? (See “Xerox’s New Chief Tries to Redefine Its Culture.”)

It’s hard to change one individual.  Personal habits are ingrained, stubborn.  But a culture, that web of assumptions, values, ideologies and manners that provide stability and orientation to a multiplicity of lives, what hope is there for changing that?  Typically, we are born into a culture.  One by one, we learn to adapt to it.  How can we make it responsive to new demands?

The key is encountering our need for security.  For a new culture to work, it has to offer the promise of eventually making us feel more secure than the old culture did.  Those who move from one country to another obviously have to adapt and change to the new culture they find – or they will not succeed.  And those who find things rapidly changing around them, as in a revolution or an ecological disaster, also must change to survive.  What will motivate a group of employees to relinquish a familiar source of security for a new, as yet untested one?

No doubt the need to change is what underlies the quest at Xerox.  The business world demands it.  But to take that change seriously, the old culture of the corporation has to start to feel unstable, unworkable, a source of insecurity.  Workers must feel that they have to give up familiar ways of doing business.  If the change does not come to feel essential, inescapable, the whole effort will stall.  Carrots alone won’t work.  It will take sticks.

Otherwise, the fledgling new culture will die a thousand tiny deaths.  Unreturned phone calls, misplaced memos, forgotten directives, raised eyebrows, late meetings, neglected bits of information, rumors, misunderstandings – these will accumulate until the initiative gradually disappears.

Inexorably, the established forces of tradition and security will defeat her.  The old culture will prevail, seamlessly binding individuals into its web, as it was designed to do.