The Roots of Culture Change

I have had such a knot in my stomach for months as the demand for systemic change against racism builds momentum. My career in culture change has taught me that changing a few laws or teaching a new approach may not be a match to the murky powers of the old way. So I worry.

It reminds me of gardening. The first year I turned over a section of field, I was naive to the battle that was ahead of me. All those root bits folded into the soil kept popping up again and again. The new sprouts I had planted had to compete. Even pulling out new grass unsettled my precious little seedlings – the structure around them shaken. I became hyper suspicious of any new green poking through. It felt like I had planted in hostile territory. Who was I to think I could easily change what had taken generations to build?

And here we are today. We are looking racism in the eye and are ready to commit to eliminating it. We are trying to undo an old culture and plant anew. And, once again, those old root bits continue doing what they were meant to do – to keep the old ways fed and alive.

When it comes to culture change, we need to recognize that those old root bits are integral to how many of us formed our initial identity and our understanding of how the world works. They didn’t get there because of any laws. They were planted like any culture gets planted – in homes, at kitchen tables, in stories on TV and in books.

Learning new things doesn’t erase the old. They stay in there, because, after all, they are part of our personal architecture. We can come to embrace a new point of view, but we need to feel safe before we will risk deconstructing our old selves. Shaming and lecturing someone does not make someone feel safe. It can feel like bullying – a way of saying, in effect, “You ignorant dolt.”

Instead, to change a culture we need to understand – really understand – the old one. We need to be able to see its reach and appreciate how the old culture kept some people feeling safe and connected.

In my career in managing culture change, there is one overriding tenet. ALWAYS MAINTAIN PEOPLE’S SELF ESTEEM. If people feel respected (or at least understood) they may be ready to honestly pore over old assumptions and let go of those that no longer work. They need to feel their own role in the change – and not feel that you are the boss of them.

New laws can be a beginning. We can shoot for compliance. But – to really change a culture we must provide our communities and homes with new stories and images that call people to a new and better form of safety. Reward companies who really help. Write our own journals of awakening to a new way. The temptation for revenge and payback can be great – but it won’t change any minds and hearts. We have to dig reeeeeally deep to do that.


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  1. Prof W. says:

    Excellent article! Very well written! The gardening analogy was spot on! You are so right that laws can only begin to make a difference and change must come from within! Thank you for sharing! Your website is awesome!

    1. SusanAdam says:

      Thanks so much. Makes me happy.