Why is company culture so hard to change?

06 May 2021 Comotion

The life insurance industry last experienced disruption about 100 years ago. Given the flood of digital advances, many predict that it’s time for the next big shakeup.

Traditional models of creating and distributing life products are still showing positive results, but things could change quickly. Life insurance companies who display an ability to invent, create and take advantage of the market have developed agility that will power them into the fourth industrial revolution and beyond. The ability to be agile or the converse ability to be inflexible can be summed up in one word: Culture.

“Culture has often been described as the secret ingredient to a company's competitive edge. It enables groups of people to respond to challenges so that the company progresses towards its objectives. Yet, no company is perfect, and culture inevitably needs to change,” says Tim Vieyra, CEO of Comotion Business Solutions.

Changing organisation culture is not a simple task, and while the top business directors already have buy in, it’s the employees that are usually more resistant to change. Edgar H. Schein, in his book "Organizational Culture and Leadership" suggests that culture exists in three different levels.

Cultural change takes effect when each level is targeted for change individually.

Level 1 Artefact

Artefacts are the most visible forms of culture. They are often displayed on t-shirts, posters, coffee cup, notebooks, magazine adverts, Etc. They're easy to observe, yet observers find it hard to determine what the symbols and slogans mean on a behavioural level.

Level 2 Adopted Beliefs and Values

Artefacts emerge from commonly accepted values and beliefs. Groups typically adopt their beliefs from the group's leader. Typically when a group is faced with a decision, a leader will put forth a proposed solution. Once that solution yields a positive result (either a measurably positive result or a socially validated result) the group adopts the idea as a borrowed value. The group will use the value because of the trust the leader has built. In that sense, the value is still external to the person.

It is these rules that start to inform the artefacts mentioned above as mechanisms of group guidance.

Level 3 Underlying Assumptions

Once a solution repeatedly generates positive results, the group accepts these rules as deeply accepted assumptions. It is in this stage that the assumption is internalized within the individuals of the group. It is these set of internal beliefs that guides groups to identify situations and select appropriate responses. Herein lies the real competitive advantage to culture.

So, why is culture so hard to change?

As the proposed values and ideas continue to yield positive results over time, they function to reduce uncertainty and slowly convert into non-discussed rules for the group. As proposals from new leaders challenge assumptions, it drives the group into uncertainty. With uncertainty comes group anxiety which the group then interprets as a source of pain. The group will then naturally and cognitively move to defend itself against sources of discomfort and pain. These defence mechanisms (denial or rationalisation) are more accessible to invoke than the process of accepting new assumptions.

How can life companies change their culture?

Firstly leaders and innovators within the organisation need to understand the urgency for agility. Since culture is a deeply accepted group of assumptions, a leader must then discover the set of assumptions the group holds. Once discovered, seek to determine the perceived benefit they bring to the group. The leader must then know how to calm and reduce the rising levels of group anxiety a change might bring and pave the way for cultural change. Finally, leaders must select the right technology platform to support their vision and empower their innovation process. Comotion’s life platform enables companies to rapidly release custom life products.

“The life industry is set for disruption, and unless companies start to challenge underlying assumptions, they risk deep threats to their business. One example is the assumption of a call centre to support life insurance products. We might find customers preferring to engage directly with the system and companies need to be prepared for large scale shifts in things like customer engagement. With the rise of AI and low-code tools such as Mendix coupled with Comotion’s life components we’re seeing the ability to adapt, on a technology front, more possible than ever before. If the culture is prepared for it then the technology is available to respond to the market demand. Internal assumptions that guide culture will either be challenged internally by innovators or externally by competition taking market share – when they get it right,” says Vieyra.

Quick Polls


South Africa’s Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) has the power to raise revenues by issuing administrative penalties and fines against non-compliant financial services providers, with this money flowing back to the Treasury… Does this, in your view, create a regulatory / government conflict of interest?


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