Belief systems in an organisational context are part of every corporate culture. These have a considerable influence on the implementation of changes in the company, whether in the context of digital transformation or other change projects. How do beliefs affect the success of change? How do you recognize them? How can executives and management react to this and influence them? Eva-Lotte Gnüg and Matthias Uebel talk about this in the podcast and interview with Carla Tusche respectively.
Listen to our mgm Podcast episode #06 or read the written interview below.
Editor: Today we want to deal with the topic of digital transformation and the different perspectives from which the topic can be viewed. Especially from the areas of organizations, IT and business. mgm deals with this topic in different areas, of course also touches on organizational development and therefore we want to discuss today with the two consultants Eva-Lotte Gnüg and Matthias Uebel the interactions between innovative IT technology and the organization or the ways of working. Would you like to introduce yourselves very briefly?
Matthias Uebel: I’ll start. Matthias Uebel, I am a Principal Consultant at mgm consulting partners and have been dealing with the topic of agile organizations and digital transformation for quite some time.
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: My name is Eva, I have been with mgm for about a year now and I am also involved in agility, organizational development and I am a volunteer team developer. Therefore I am very interested in the topic.
Editor: Very nice! We have already talked a little before this podcast and you said that when it comes to the topic of organisational development in companies, you have repeatedly experienced that beliefs have a significant influence on the successful implementation of a change in the organisation. This is a topic we want to deal with intensively today and take a closer look at. Can you explain how to understand beliefs in an organizational context?
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Sure, gladly. Basically, those who have heard of dogmas probably know them more from the psychological context. So every person has beliefs that reflect our inner convictions and attitudes and mostly unconsciously influence our behaviour. There are dogmas, but also in an organizational context and they refer to social systems, i.e. to social togetherness. Within the company, beliefs act like unwritten laws and thus influence the thoughts and actions of employees and managers, virtually all of them together. They are elements of the organisational culture and influence how everyone behaves.
Editor: Can you give a few examples? Perhaps not everyone can immediately imagine what it is like to believe. What, for example, could such a dogma be?
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Examples of dogmas are “Trust is good, control is better” or “Whoever writes comments in the network is probably not working to capacity” or “Commitment and extra work is rewarded in our company” or “All employees are equal”. There are different beliefs, they are not fundamentally positive or negative, but one should rather understand beliefs as value-free, and the assessment of whether beliefs influence the company positively or negatively comes from their effect on the company and on the behaviour in the company.
Editor: What influence or effects do dogmas have on changes in the company? Well, I think everyone who has ever been in working life is familiar with these beliefs, which also prevail among employees. But right now I can’t quite imagine how that really influences the change process in the company, because maybe every employee has different beliefs, right? How relevant to success is it for the company to deal with this issue?
Matthias Uebel: Well, basically, dogmas have a function in a company, they serve the stability of a company, an organization, so to speak. If we had no beliefs, which would be a purely hypothetical case, then we would not understand each other at all, then we would misinterpret reactions.
This means that dogmas are basically used for orientation in a social system, they are something like a behavioural compass. Why is it useful to deal with dogmas? As I have just said, we are dealing with digital transformations. And there is always the basic call in such complex change processes: “We have to become more agile, we need more flexibility, we have to focus more strongly on the customer”. And more self-organized teams make a contribution to this. In other words, teams that can respond more strongly and more quickly to customer needs, that have short decision-making paths. Companies then always come up with the idea very quickly and say: “Well, then of course we need a tool for this, for example MS Teams in the context of Office 365, then training is offered.
But then somehow you observe that the desired change in behaviour, namely the stronger togetherness, the collaboration, does not really happen.
And then it gets quite crude, then the companies get the idea and follow their old belief: “Trust is good, control is better”, and give a work instruction and say for example “from tomorrow on we will work together”, “from tomorrow on this will be effective in terms of content and we will also make this measurable”, “We count the clicks here or rate the comments” or whatever. And that is then of course paradoxical, because I try to control self-organisation through it, to achieve more self-organisation through control. And that just doesn’t work anymore. That means that what I need in this case is actually more trust and less control and this is a good example of how fixed organizational beliefs can stand in the way of a change process.
Editor: The example you just gave was in the context of tools for self-organisation. You said that if there is a certain set of beliefs that contradicts this self-organized way of working, it can be a hindrance. But now there are certainly many other examples. Eva, do you perhaps have anything from your practice that you can add that is not directly related to the use of any tools right now?
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Sure, there are many examples, also on the subject of self-organization, for example when the company wants its employees to work in a more self-organized manner, to take on more responsibility for themselves and their tasks, but on the other hand it is anchored in the corporate culture that reporting meetings take place every week, where the projects or the employees present in detail what they are doing to their managers, but then the managers quasi make the decisions.
In a certain way, employees are educated to only prepare decision documents and not to act in a self-organized and responsible manner.
This is a contradiction of the belief that “employees cannot handle free spaces, they have to be closely monitored” and the statement “Hey, but we want our employees to work more independently or in a more self-organized way”. Then, for example, there is sometimes the belief in the company that “performance is only created through internal competition”.
This can be seen, for example, in the fact that only individual services are assessed in end-of-year meetings. One does not look at group achievements, but always only at what each individual has achieved in his or her area. And when the company says that we want to promote cooperation between employees, then of course that doesn’t work. Why should I, as an employee, have the motivation to invest in team work if I am then quasi punished for it because my manager tells me at the end that I didn’t see you doing anything or I have no proof of it?
Editor: If I understand this correctly, a change measure actually stands and falls with the prevailing dogmas. Sounds plausible to me, I also know from my own experience. Well, what’s the solution for that? How is an organization supposed to work with beliefs, or how can one perhaps influence and change them in such a way that it is conducive to this change process?
Matthias Uebel: I believe that what companies first need is an understanding of what dogmas mean. Especially when they realize things don’t work out. Then it is usually assumed that it is up to the employees, and then we have to work on the employees as well. But dogmas do not say just that, so it is not about changing people, but about changing a social system.
The basic idea is that if I change the social system, that is, if I change certain rules and principles and things like that, then I can also influence the behaviour of the employees.
And this understanding, i.e. the separation between man and system is what one should first understand. Then you have a good prerequisite to change something in the dogmas here as well.
Editor: And how can I as a company first of all work out these beliefs for myself? I have to get an idea which beliefs are predominant at all. How do I approach the subject?
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Here we would give the tip to sensitively observe the behaviour of the employees and the way they are treated in the company. Of course, it is particularly noticeable when, for example, a new way of working or a new tool is to be introduced and the company thinks we need to change something because we want to change our corporate culture in a certain way. If then these new ways of working and tools are not accepted, i.e. people do not use them, then it is often not really clear why this does not work.
This is exactly the approach where we say: Take a look at your organizational beliefs, sit down with your employees, with the managers and all those who work together in this context.
There are then different methods to work out which beliefs are present in the company. This can best be done in exchange and especially when sentences like: “Well, we can’t do that in our company anyway! Or, “Well, it doesn’t work that way with us.”
Editor: “We have always done it this way!”
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Right! This is then a statement of this kind, where one should listen exactly and can say that this comes closer to a dogma. At this point, these underlying beliefs, as we mentioned earlier, can still be worked out, such as “employees must be controlled”. But here you have to take a step back to what Matthias just said and not say: “Then why don’t you control your employees less! Or: “Leaders, change!” It’s difficult. You have to look at which structures and processes in the company influence this behaviour.
Editor: So we have to look at which structures and processes have shaped and consolidated the dogma in the first place…
Eva-Lotte Gnüg: Exactly!
Editor: You already mentioned it… I asked myself earlier: How can I consciously influence the dogmas? So, it is reassuring to know that you can uncover them and that there are suitable methods to work on them later. But, what can I do as a company to influence and change a corporate culture in such a way that my overall change measure in the context of a digital transformation works?
Matthias Uebel: Well, basically you first have to find out how it doesn’t work. It does not work, as companies very often try to do, namely by proclaiming certain types of behaviour. What is very often found are poster campaigns that focus on the values of the organisation. The other day I heard in a lecture how a company does it. They made a big action and wrote on posters: “We trust each other!”.
I find that very exciting, because such a dogma or such a proclamation “We trust each other” is of course to be seen critically, if this dogma does not exist at all, so no trust prevails, but it is rather about control.
What we create are rather mocking reactions, which we actually don’t want in the company. So, how can you change beliefs? Not directly, but indirectly, and that is via the so-called structural elements and management practices, i.e. all practices that somehow pay into these beliefs. For example, if you take the individual performance assessment or an incentive, this may not be the right structural element or practice if I actually prefer teamwork. That is, one should first analyze which management practices contribute to the dogma. And then adapt and change management practices or structures accordingly. And in the example of an individual performance assessment, this would mean that we would instead move on to the assessment of team performance.
In other words, it is basically a matter of changing structures first.
It is above all a matter of trying this out first, because the effect of changes in such structural elements cannot be predicted exactly. I can never predict exactly how far this will affect the dogmas. So here’s a tip: try a lot to see what the effect is then. And the second thing is: not everything at once. This means proceeding iteratively, changing step by step and above all always giving reasons. Justify why we are changing structures, what we want with them, what the purpose of these measures is. Basically, it must be said that it is not so easy to change such practiced practices or structural elements. You will always have to deal with great resistance at this point, but from our point of view there is no other way.
Editor: This also means, in reverse, that one should actually, before striving for a major change in the company, first look at the dogmas before even starting with this measure, i.e. as a basis, one should simply check the dogmas. And if you then find that they are not conducive to the measure or are in contrast to it, then you would have to change these beliefs before you start with it. Let me get this straight.
Matthias Uebel: You can’t change the dogmas directly, but the management practices that to a certain extent contribute to these dogmas must be changed.
Editor: I see! Thank you very much for your comments. One can summarize that the digital transformation definitely starts with the corporate culture and only if this culture is open to change, something can be moved, only then will the measures take effect. It basically starts with the dogmas, which means that if you want to change something in your company yourself, it is best to set the right course at the beginning and deal with the dogmas first. Thank you Eva and Matthias for this explanation, for the explanation. Both of them are of course also available for further questions. So if you have further need for conversation here or would like to have further information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and your e-mails will be forwarded to Eva and Matthias.