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HR Directors: 5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Changing an Engineering Company's Culture

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How many HR Directors does it take to change an engineering company's culture?

I don't have a punchline for that one. But if you are an HR Director taking the lead in changing your engineering organisation's culture, then you will know that this task requires more than one person to get things moving.  And the effort involved certainly doesn't feel like a joke.

Leading culture change is tough in any sector, there's no doubt about that.  Many of the challenges faced will be the same in every sector because culture change involves people.

But there are pitfalls that are specific to particular sectors: engineering is no exception.  Understanding the pitfalls that you face when implementing cultural change in your engineering organisation will reduce the amount of time spent going backwards.  You'll have more of the days when you experience the euphoria of moving forwards.

In this blog, I look at five pitfalls to avoid when leading culture change in the engineering sector in particular.

1. Engineering companies tend to focus on solutions

An engineering company's culture can be understood through the perspective of Ed Schein's work on subcultures. Schein, Sloan Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT, has identified that most organisations have three subcultures, rather than one over-arching organisational culture.

These are Operators (broadly focussed on human interaction), Executives (financially-focussed lone hero) and Engineering (focussed on elegant solutions, automation and removing people from the picture).

Engineering organisations will typically have each of these to some degree but the dominant subculture tends to be 'Engineering'.

Engaging engineers in the idea that they have to bring people to the centre of the picture in order to change culture, rather than automating them out of the picture, is a particular challenge in the engineering sector.

2. Senior managers blame others, not themselves

While senior managers in many sectors will fall foul of this one, the engineering sector is one in which it is especially prevalent.  The reason is that most senior managers in the engineering sector will have begun their careers as engineers.  As such, they tend to be logical, solutions-focussed individuals who do not necessarily spend a great deal of time noticing their impact on people.

Indeed, this can be a significant blindspot which leads to a tendency to believe that the barriers to culture change are caused by other people, not by the senior manager.

3. Senior managers want the culture 'fixed' quickly

Culture change requires steadfast commitment over a lengthy period; during much of this, there can seem to be little or no progress.  What progress there is can be intangible and can disappear as quickly as it arrives.

This runs counter to engineers-turned-managers, who are used to finding a measurable solution to a complex problem – one that can be relied upon to produce consistent results.  As such, they get impatient and can quickly lose interest when faced with the slow progress and intangible nature that is inherent in culture change .

4. Culture change is seen as soft

Changing the organisation's culture is usually just one of several strategic changes occurring at the same time.  But – perhaps because of the reasons stated in points (2) and (3) – even if cultural change appears on the business's strategic agenda, it rarely gets the same airtime as the 'real' business.  It can also be that these different priorities actually conflict with the cultural change.

In one organisation I worked with, there was a desire to create a more agile culture while also increasing focus on safety. The latter led to the imposition of far more detailed safety standards than had previously existed and was seen by the workforce as representing anything but agility.  Both changes were essential, but they were running counter to one another.

5. Engineers are inherently resistant to change

Given that many engineers work at the forefront of technology and find innovative solutions to problems, it seems counter-intuitive to suggest they are inherently resistant to change.  But the fact is that the personal attributes that make a good engineer – attention to detail, precision, logical thinking, structure, process – also tend to make them strongly prefer the status quo unless there is a very good reason to change.

Persuading these individuals that something as intangible as a change in culture is worth their energy and focus can be a significant challenge.

Conclusion

While changing culture in any organisation is tough, HR Directors who are leading change in an engineering organisation will find there are specific pitfalls to avoid when leading change in the engineering sector.  My top five are:

  • The natural focus on finding solutions and removing people from the picture
  • A particular tendency for senior managers to blame others rather than themselves
  • Senior managers losing interest when the 'problem' of culture isn't fixed quickly
  • Culture change being seen as soft and therefore not given priority
  • Engineers who are naturally resistant to change

Being aware of these pitfalls will enable you to spot them early and so take steps to manage them before they can seriously derail the culture change in your organisation.

creating the right culture

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