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Organizational Culture Change at the UN: What actually works?

2 June 2024

By Katja Hemmerich

Man thinking with two mini versions of himself coming out of his head.

Five years ago, UNICEF embarked on a process of organizational culture change to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion, including the prevention of sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and abuse. During its annual session this month (11-14 June 2024), the UNICEF Executive Board will receive an update on that culture change process (E/ICEF/2024/15) which includes a stocktaking of lesson learned to date.

A key point highlighted in the lessons learnt is that UNICEF’s culture change approach has considered diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) not just as an internal management or human resources issue. Rather UNICEF aimed for a consistent integration of DEI and culture change across internal and external functions including programming, fundraising and partnerships, procurement, communications, as well as human resources. It is this consistency which makes the UNICEF culture change process somewhat unique, and which UNICEF feels has been a key strength in their approach.

“When UNICEF began to change its organizational culture, it adopted an approach of consistency between the external and internal, i.e. it is an organization committed to the rights of all children, and it must also be a champion of rights for all its staff, without discrimination… This dual attention to the internal and external has been a strength for UNICEF, as it has linked the culture and diversity, equity and inclusion work squarely with the UNICEF mandate ‘for every child’.” - E/ICEF/2024/15, para.48

Our spotlight this month uses emerging research on the internal functioning of international organizations to explain why this approach is a key strength for UNICEF and an important lesson learnt for other UN entities and international organizations embarking on culture change and management reforms.

Incoherence as a Key Aspect of Organizational Culture in International Organizations

Despite the common refrain of “One UN”, most practitioners are aware that the UN system is not uniform, but made up of different UN organizations which have their own organizational mandates, structures and processes, like all international organizations. While we recognize that the UN system is not homogeneous, we do tend to consider individual UN organizations as having a coherent organizational identity, i.e. UNICEF is the agency for children. New research from the University of Reading, however highlights that even at the level of individual international organizations there are multiple organizational identities which can be inconsistent or even conflict with each other, and fundamentally shape organizational culture.

Most international organizations, including in the UN, are organizations that are mandated and funded by member states to implement their collective agreements while also consisting of independent secretariats made of technical experts. Their technical expertise is supposed to facilitate normative functions and set standards based on ‘international best practice’ although ultimately standards must be agreed by their member states, who may have their own agendas. International organizations are also supposed to be apolitical implementers of the collective agreements of member states. Yet member state agreements on policy priorities, approaches and funding may not always allow for operational approaches in accordance with what the technical experts consider international best practice. These different normative and operational roles and identities are not always fully coherent and can in some cases even conflict with each other.

This incoherence and the conflicting roles create internal challenges for staff of international organizations that are more pronounced than in other types of organizations, which have fewer conflicting identities. Staff of international organizations regularly face dilemmas of figuring out how to reconcile different organizational roles. In extreme cases (which can occur on a surprisingly regular basis) staff must violate a principle or value of one organizational identity in order to fulfill the requirements of another role.

“These diverse identities sometimes prescribe goals and ways of working that conflict, compelling staff to “violate” the principles and activities considered appropriate to one of their identities. For example, DPKO officials noted that missions are often forced to choose between respect for host country sovereignty and demands for self-determination by marginalized or minority groups. Others highlighted the ‘tension over...the UN’s normative commitment to human rights [and]...the realities [of ensuring security] on the ground.’ Nearly all agreed that the UN has ‘very much... a split personality” and “an identity crisis [about] what [we’re] actually trying to achieve.’” - Sarah von Billerbeck, “'Mirror, Mirror On the Wall:’ Self-Legitimation by International Organizations”, 2020

While the research highlights several of these high level contradictions, which are typcially considered leadership dilemmas, the reality is that they very much trickle down to the working level and imprint the organizational culture. In reading the research, I could recall multiple experiences where I had to navigate such conflicting identities during my UN career. For instance, I will be the first to agree that the UN should be held to the highest ethical standards - yet I have also positively engaged in a senior management discussion about paying bribes to let UN humanitarian convoys proceed after a driver of a prior convoy that had refused to pay a bribe was beheaded. I also fundamentally believe diversity, equity and inclusion is particularly important for international organizations, but have also made the decision to hire a known good performer rather than taking a chance on an unknown hire, who could have provided more diversity to our team.

Staff of international organizations need to regularly navigate such dilemmas and they watch how the leadership and peers navigate those conflicting identities on a regular basis. All of which contributes to perceptions of inconsistencies or sometimes even a lack of organizational integrity. This feeds the cynicism that so often plagues UN organizations and can be a significant barrier to change management in international organizations. The emerging research that is being done to understand how international organizations manage staff perceptions, engagement and commitment in this particular context provides unique insights for change managers in the UN and other international organizations. Whether intentional or not, UNICEF appears to have picked up on what these researchers have identified as some successful practices.

Why UNICEF’s approach to organizational culture change is a strength

Signals from leadership, internal communications tools like guidance or townhall meetings, ceremonies and rituals, are all tools which international organizations use to help staff navigate these organizational identity dilemmas. The new insights that this research brings is identifying how and why these tools are used successfully (or not) in organizational change processes. When these tools provide clear guidance on which organizational roles and values to priortize in case of conflict, they reinforce organizational cohesion and employee engagement. However, communications that are, or appear to staff, as purely tactical tend to backfire and increase resistance to change.

Different international organizations use these tools with varying degrees of success to manage thier multiple organizational identities. In her comparative analysis of how UN peacekeeping, the World Bank and NATO deal with their multiple identities, Prof. Sarah von Billerbeck found that:

“The UN displays a high degree of uncertainty about how to prioritize, sequence, or select among its identities because staff view them all as equally important… By contrast, NATO and the World Bank have clearer identity hierarchies. For NATO, its operational identity and its identity as a service provider to its members take precedence over its normative identity… The World Bank, similarly, has a clearer identity hierarchy, with its operational identity usually outranking its normative one and its identity as a body of independent experts outranking that of a secretariat at the disposal of member states.” - Sarah von Billerbeck, “'Mirror, Mirror On the Wall:’ Self-Legitimation by International Organizations”, 2020

This also highlights why UNICEF’s approach to cultural change is a strength. By linking diversity, equity and inclusion to its mandate ‘for every child’ and integrating it into functions across the organization, UNICEF’s leadership is signaling that DEI needs to be prioritized when organizational roles conflict. Communicating diversity as a principle that is fundamentally linked to delivery of UNICEF’s mandate for every child enhances the legitimacy not only of the approach, but also influences how staff prioritize decisionmaking criteria and risks, i.e. taking a risk on an unknown hire is a contribution to mandate implementation when it enhances the diversity of your team.

Another important finding from this emerging area of research is that while leadership communication is a particularly important tool in helping staff navigate organizational identities and inconsistencies, it can also backfire and undermine the organizational cohesion or change process that it is intended to support. This happens when communications are themselves inconsistent or gloss over existing challenges and generally appear as tactical rather than authentic communications.

“Whether IO employees accept and adopt legitimation narratives seems to depend to a large extent on whether the justifications put forward by leaders are perceived as authentic or rather tactical in the respective context. If they are perceived as purely tactical measures to cover up existing problems, then IO staff will be more inclined to reject them.” - Ben Christian, "Just Theater!”—How Self-Legitimation Practices Can Backfire in International Organizations”, 2024

Rejection can come in the form of criticism or ignoring the message entirely, or it can also lead to cynicism amongst staff. For individual staff members, cynicism is psychological protection measure to help deal with the differences in words and actions that they see on a regular basis. When cynicism pervades the whole workforce, however, it makes staff very skeptical of change and reluctant to actually engage in reform processes.

When UNICEF indicates that diversity, equity and inclusion is not just a human resources issue, but rather an issue for the whole organization, it appears less like a tactical response to member state concerns regarding a lack of staff diversity and geographic balance. Accordingly, it reduces the likelihood of staff rejecting the argument and minimizes potential cynicism about organizational culture change as a real reform. This is not to say that there is no cynicism in UNICEF about the organizational culture change process. The reality is that this is a particular feature of workforces in international organizations that needs to be systematically considered in change efforts - and UNICEF’s approach is certainly one that other change makers should try and learn from.

Practical consideration for change management in international organizations

For those working on change management in international organizations, this new stream of research that I’ve highlighted in this month’s spotlight is an area to watch because it contextualizes reform processes to the unique structures and challenges of international organizations. To help think through how this research can be applied to your work, I would like to leave you with a few strategic questions to consider as you shape your change process and related communications:

  1. Is there consistency between teh substance of the reform initiative and how it is being communicated? Are the justifications for the change that you are communicating sound?

  2. Do communications acknowledge problems and challenges rather than glossing over them?

  3. When implementing the change, where might staff face a conflict with other organizational principles, rules, mandates or roles? What signals are they getting about how to prioritize or deconflict in those situations?



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