Culturally intelligent change management

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Muhammad A. B. Ilyas, CEO, LIFELONG, Kuwait

Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Director, LIFELONG, Kuwait

Change leaders who have the experience and skills to deal with organizations characterized by diversity are in high demand. Demand is driven by the fact that more and more organizations are expanding across geographical confines to overcome shortages in local opportunities and also to leverage the intellectual capital available across the globe. This trend has made it mandatory for change leaders to learn managing stakeholders across different cultures. Failing to do so may not only jeopardize the outcome of change initiatives but also make stakeholder management an unnecessarily stressful exercise.

This paper enumerates the popular change management frameworks and provides a comparative coverage of Kotter's 8-Step Process for Leading Change and Virginia Satir Change Process Model. As suggested by research, cultural misunderstandings significantly contribute to complicating the application of change management models. The paper shares the authors’ insights on challenges faced by change leaders grappling with diversity.

This paper goes on to explain the differences between major cultures and their impact on the change management models. Using the Lewis Model of Culture to elaborate classes of culture and areas of cross-cultural misunderstanding, it also explains impact of culture on decision making, negotiations, managing people, leadership styles, and communication. Relying on the global exposure of the authors, the paper provides practical guidelines that can be leveraged in selecting the right motivation techniques and negotiation tools which are likely to provide the best outcomes in a given cultural setting. Proven strategies which facilitate selling ideas in each major culture are also covered. Change management strategies to be used in culturally homogeneous organizations differ from those that are used in culturally diverse organizations. The paper covers approaches which can be used in each type of organization.

Organizational change management (OCM) is a framework for managing the effect of new business processes, changes in organizational structure, or cultural changes within an enterprise. Simply put, OCM addresses the people side of change management. Organizational change is a structured approach in an organization for ensuring that changes are smoothly and successfully implemented to achieve lasting benefits (Rouse, 2009).

In order to be most effective, every change management initiative must include:

  • Fostering common understanding and vision of change;
  • Clear communication to sell the business case for change;
  • Educating employees about how their work will be affected by the proposed change;
  • Concrete plan to measure whether or not the change is achieving its desired results;
  • Rewards that encourage individuals and groups to take ownership for their new roles and responsibilities.

Change Management Models

This section describes the popular models used for organizational change management in organizations around the globe.

Kotter's 8-Step Process for Leading Change

Dr. John P. Kotter's 8-Step Process as described in Leading Change (Kotter, 2012) is one of the most popular organizational change management methodologies. Kotter observed the behaviour and results of hundreds of organizations and thousands of leaders at all levels when they were trying to transform or execute their strategies. The eight steps of the methodology are described in the following:

  1. Create a sense of urgency: Craft and use a significant opportunity as a means for exciting people to sign up to change their organization.
  2. Build a guiding coalition: Assemble a group with the power and energy to lead and support a collaborative change effort.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives: Shape a vision to help steer the change effort and develop strategic initiatives to achieve that vision.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army: Raise a large force of people who are ready, willing and urgent to drive change.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers: Remove obstacles to change, change systems or structures that pose threats to the achievement of the vision.
  6. Generate short term wins: Consistently produce, track, evaluate and celebrate volumes of small and large accomplishments and correlate them to results.
  7. Sustain acceleration: Use increasing credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don't align with the vision; hire, promote, and develop employees who can implement the vision; reinvigorate the process with new projects, themes, and volunteers.
  8. Institute change: Articulate the connections between the new and organizational success, and develop the means to ensure leadership development and succession.

Virginia Satir Change Process Model

Virginia Satir Change Process Model is a five-stage psychological model developed through clinical studies. It focuses not just on systems of people but also on individuals. The model is widely used as a reference during organizational transformation projects. The stages, along with recommendations on how to handle each stage, are described in the following (Smith, 2013):

  1. Late status quo: Encourage people to seek improvement information and concepts from outside the group.
  2. Resistance: Help people to open up, become aware, and overcome the reaction to deny, avoid, or blame.
  3. Chaos: Help build a safe environment that enables people to focus on their feelings, acknowledge their fear, and use their support systems. Help management avoid any attempt to short circuit this stage with magical solutions.
  4. Integration: Offer reassurance and help finding new methods for coping with difficulties.
  5. New status quo: Help people feel safe so they can practice.

Other Models and Frameworks

This is the ADKAR® model, a goal-oriented change management model sold by Prosci, an independent research company that allows change management teams to focus their activities on specific business results. The model was initially used as a tool for determining if change management activities like communications and training were having the desired results during organizational change. Elements of ADKAR are listed below:

  1. Awareness of the need for change;
  2. Desire to make the change happen;
  3. Knowledge about how to change;
  4. Ability to implement new skills and behaviours
  5. Reinforcement to retain the change once it has been made.

Cultural Intelligence in Change Management

“Cultural intelligence” is defined as a person's capability to adapt while interacting with others from different cultural regions. A person who exhibits cultural intelligence has behavioural, motivational, and metacognitive aspects.

More and more organizations are expanding across geographical confines to overcome shortages in local opportunities and also to leverage the intellectual capital available across the globe. This trend has made it mandatory for change managers to learn how to manage change initiatives across different cultures. Failing to do so may not only jeopardize objectives of the desired change but also make change management a stressful exercise.

Lewis's cultural classes model

According to Richard D. Lewis, several hundred national and regional cultures of the world can be roughly classified into three groups (Lewis, 2006):

  • Task-oriented, highly organized planners (Linear-Active);
  • People-oriented, loquacious communicators (Multi-Active);
  • Introverted, respect-oriented listeners (Re-Active).

The classification helps in understanding behaviors when dealing with people from different cultures. It also helps in avoiding offenses and understanding the reaction to change initiatives. A good understanding of the attributes of cultural classes not only helps in predicting individual behaviours but also provides guidance on how to best frame a message to achieve the desired results. These attributes should form the basis of any stereotypes we develop and maintain about other cultures. A diagrammatic disposition of major nations into cultural classes is given in Exhibit 1.


Exhibit 1: Cultural classes model.

An attribute that is critical in change management is how different cultures process information. In data-oriented cultures, a lot of research is done to produce information that is then acted on. The more developed societies turn to printed sources and databases to collect facts which are then parsed through information systems to help in decision making. Dialogue-oriented cultures, on the other hand, rely more on their own personal information network. Dialogue-oriented people tend to use their personal relations to solve problems from the human angle. Exhibit 2 shows a ranking of dialogue-oriented and data-oriented cultures around the globe.


Exhibit 2: Relative ranking of dialogue and data-oriented cultures.

Attributes of Linear-Active Cultures

As mentioned earlier, Linear-Active cultures are task-oriented and highly organized. Nations which belong to this class include, among others, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Key attributes of Linear-Active cultures are given in Exhibit 3.


Exhibit 3: Attributes of linear-active cultures.

Attributes of Multi-Active Cultures

Multi-Active cultures are people-oriented and loquacious inter-relators. Nations characterized by this cultural class include Hispanic Americans, nations of the Middle East, Arabs, Africa, Russia, Italy and Spain. Key attributes of Multi-Active cultures are given in Exhibit 4.


Exhibit 4: Attributes of multi-active cultures.

Attributes of Re-Active Cultures

Vietnam, China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore are considered examples of Re-Active cultures. Members of this class are introverted and respect-oriented listeners. Key attributes of Re-Active cultures are given in Exhibit 5.


Exhibit 5: Attributes of re-active cultures.

Communication in Linear-Active Cultures

The communication of all change initiatives should be planned to respect the authority levels and formal positions. A communication plan should consider the risk of misunderstandings due to any differences in language. Technical terms must be defined, and supporting data must be provided as an essential component of any communication. The fact that formal decisions are mostly taken during meetings should be considered while planning meeting times and agendas.

Communication in Multi-Active Cultures

In these cultures, most of the communication is informal. Since Multi-Active cultures are characterized by being talkative, meetings may not finish on time. The meetings get interrupted by discussions not on the agenda and so require active facilitation to deal with individuals who may tend to dominate the proceedings. The formal authority, hierarchy, and the ages of members must be respected at all times. Though communication may be allowed to span different departments, functional heads must be informed (copied) at all times even if their active involvement is not needed. This is done to show respect and acknowledge power. Formal communication is often used to document the decisions made during informal communication. Communication of change initiatives should only cover major points without specifying details. Many stakeholders tend to get first-hand information, so communication channels get complicated. Special efforts should be made to get clarification and avoid misunderstandings.

Communication in Re-Active Cultures

Most of the communication is formal and characterized by a careful choice of words and gestures. Punctuality is valued, but meetings are mostly meant to convey decisions and not to deliberate on them. The formal authority, hierarchy, and age of the members must be respected at all times. Any communication of change initiatives should cover major highlights, explained through diagrams. Many stakeholders tend to get first-hand information and also value reliable data.

Culturally Intelligent Application of Change Models

This section describes how cultural intelligence can help in enhancing the use of popular change management models.

Change Management in Culturally Homogeneous Organizations

Adapting Kotter's 8—Step Process


Exhibit 6: Kotter's 8-Step process across cultures.

Adapting Virginia Satir Change Process Model


Exhibit 7: Adaptation of Virginia Satir change process model across cultures.

Change Management in Culturally Diverse Organizations

Change management is more challenging in organizations that are characterized by higher degrees of cultural diversity. In such organizations distinct groups of employees must be formed based on their cultural classes and organizational hierarchy. Messages must be carefully drafted to address the unique attributes of each cultural class. The biggest challenge in culturally diverse organizations is to ensure that different modes of communication and engagement strategies are managed cohesively to achieve the desired outcomes of all stages of a change management methodology.


This paper explains impact of culture on organizational change management initiatives in global organizations. The paper also provides practical guidelines which can be leveraged in selecting the processes and tools that are likely to provide the best outcomes in a given cultural setting. It is strongly recommended that change managers try to use cultural intelligence when working with a diverse set of stakeholders who come from different cultures and nationalities.


Hiatt, J. (2006). ADKAR: A model for change in business, government and our community. Loveland, CO: Prosci.

Kotter, J. (2012). The heart of change: Real-Life stories of how people change their organizations. Watertown, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kotter, J. (2012). Leading change. Watertown, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Lewis, R. (2006). When cultures collide: Leading across cultures. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Rouse, M. (2009). What is organizational change management (OCM)? Retrieved from

Smith, S. (2013). The Satir change model. Retrieved from

© 2015, Muhammad A. B. Ilyas, Mohamed Khalifa Hassan
Originally published as part of 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, United Kingdom



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