In their article Changing an Organization’s Culture, Without Resistance or Blame, Tom DiDonato and Noelle Gill describe the approach they used to significantly shift the culture at Lear. As they described it, the culture they were working with was focused on efficiency and results. While that focus had successfully moved the organization out of bankruptcy, “we worried that we had taken our focus on results too far. In satisfying our demanding customers, were we pushing the organization to the breaking point?”

The authors led a culture change that focused on a new leadership model for middle- to upper-level managers. Working with cohorts of 65 managers each, they executed the change in four phases.

  • Awareness focused on getting the model out the Lear’s management. “We spent some money on publicity, including framed posters, mousepads, and even a sculpture commissioned for the headquarters lobby. The leadership model and related descriptions went out in the 20 languages used by Lear managers around the world.”
  • Learning took place within each of three cohorts over a period of three months. Each participant was assessed by their direct reports against the new model. The assessments were shared with the individuals, but not with their supervisors. Each cohort then came together for a two-day retreat where they were introduced to the new model in detail. Importantly, peer groups of four managers from different locations were set up; these groups worked together during the retreat and were encouraged to do so through the entire change process. They were also given a powerful message by senior executives. “I’ll never forget our CEO, Matt Simoncini, getting up in front of dozens of managers and saying, in essence, ‘I’ve violated several of these model behaviors myself in the past. I’ve started to get better, but I still have a lot of work to do.’”
  • Practice took place back in the workplace. Lear had quarterly reviews that were not attached to salary decisions; as a result, those reviews could be used to provide candid feedback without fear on the part of the manager being reviewed. They could discuss any challenges the manager was having in applying the new behaviors and find ways to help make the changes stick.
  • Accountability took root at the six-month review. The individual assessment was completed again, but this time was provided both to the individual manager and to the supervisor. The results of that assessment were now taken into consideration regarding compensation, promotion, and even continued employment.

This approach applies much of what we know about moving people through change and was a success for Lear. There was a clear recognition that behaviors don’t change overnight. There was a process put in place for peer coaching, support, and accountability. The C-suite was a part of the process. The message was “we are in this, and struggling with it, too.” And there was accountability, with consequences, built into the process.

That said, some things do stand out as either unaddressed in the article or unaddressed in the approach itself. First, behavior change without a corresponding change in thinking is only sustainable through ongoing monitoring over time; as described, this model focused exclusively on behavior change. In addition, while Lear’s review process was structured to occur quarterly, the kinds of conversations that were described in the article for the first review would be more effective if they occurred in an ongoing way.

Finally, even this process was not executed without resistance as the authors claim in the title. As they wrote, “We did have to let several managers go, including some vice presidents. These were known troublemakers, at the extreme end of the spectrum, whom we’d previously turned a blind eye to because their results were good. People had justified their rough leadership style by saying they had ‘passion,’ but over the years I’ve learned that’s just an excuse for bad behavior. We couldn’t have them around while we pursued the program, or we would have lost our credibility.” While Lear’s approach may have helped to reduce resistance, it is an inevitable part of the human response to change and can, in fact, inform how to move forward more successfully.