Leading Change: The Human Challenge
Sitting in an airport departure lounge recently, I noticed a man wearing a Dilbert T-shirt emblazoned with the saying, “Change is good; let it happen to someone else.” This sort of thinking seems to capture exactly the mindset of many upper and middle managers we encounter in our leadership seminars and executive coaching sessions. They have learned enough from reading the plethora of business publications to know that change to the point of chaos is likely to characterize the emerging postmodern economy. What they have not learned is how to live comfortably and peacefully with the results of so much turbulence.
After coaching executives, professionals, and my clinical clients to surf the waves of change, I am beginning to wonder if humans have a biological predisposition to react negatively to involuntary transitions. Peter Senge correctly observes that humans tend to embrace changes that are of their own initiation; they vigorously resist only changes imposed on them by others. Perhaps, like a selectively permeable cell membrane, we allow in those changes that match with our internal conditions and resist changes that do not match.
The evolutionary parallel is clear: Change from stasis threatens survival, especially if the new environment deviates significantly from those conditions believed to be necessary for survival. Organisms (people) who learn how to survive, or even possess a selective advantage, in one environment may be at risk if conditions change. How people think about change may affect how well they adapt to it. For example, noted New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis postulates that humans are biologically predisposed to make themselves miserable (depressed, anxious, etc.) by thinking in irrational ways. He theorizes that it is only by learning how not to think so irrationally that we become capable of mental health (hence his Rational Emotive Therapy). Dysfunctional families have lasting impact, according to Ellis, by restricting or preventing the learning of more rational ways of thinking. The therapeutic implication is clear: change how one interprets events and she can react in new and different ways.
Consistent with this notion, I am not sure I have ever been completely successful at persuading a client to accept a situation in his or her life that directly conflicts with their deeply held beliefs about how things should be. The client who believes with all her heart that she should be married reluctantly tolerates singleness, even after intellectually agreeing that happiness is not necessarily a function of marital status. Often, clients seek clinical help when faced with some circumstance in their lives that is not how they want it to be and after failing to change the troubling events by themselves. Yet the therapist is usually no more able to modify life situations than the client. The most successful therapeutic outcomes thus emerge not when the client’s life changes, but when he or she comes to tolerate the mismatch between reality and their ideal. I suspect mental health professionals rarely see the individual whose life seems to be following a self-acceptable course.
Humans are blessed and cursed with an intellectual capacity to scrutinize their lives. Given that most of our expectations of life (family, other relationships, education, career, and more) are formed long in advance of the actual emergence of these things, odds are probably strong that reality will look different. As a parent, I am aware that many of my expectations regarding my son were formed prenatally, well before I met him and even longer before his personality became known to me. Unreasonable, then, to allow those a priori expectations to harden and rigidify into demands. Nevertheless, what sense do I make now of those areas where reality and my expectations diverge?
In a similar way, people form expectations about their work lives, frequently on the basis of “rules of thumb” that applied in one era (say, for example, when they were children and their parents were working), but no longer fit. Facilitating a workshop on self-esteem, Judith Schechtman and I asked participants to brainstorm a list of aphorisms regarding how life should be. Our point was that in a subtle way, sayings like, “Always wear clean underwear,” or, “The early bird gets the worm,” form beliefs that guide how we live and evaluate our lives. With more than a few chuckles of dawning awareness, the participants quickly generated a substantial list of such sayings. One enduring belief of Western (especially North American) cultures is that in life we get what we deserve; “cream rises to the top,” and “the fittest survive.”
The tendency is for previously successful managers, having internalized the belief that their success is a function of competence and hard work, to blame themselves when faced with a seeming failure. Belief that the work world is a meritocracy can produce an inaccurate and distorted conclusion when less capable (but more politically skilled) colleagues get ahead. The downward career spiral that frequently follows such conclusions is called a “Doom Loop.” I note a similar relational Doom Loop for many of our clients following the unexpected demise of an important romantic relationship. It is important to note that the front door to the Doom Loop is invariably framed by how one makes sense of the mismatch between expectation and reality.
I believe the above explains why it is that some people experience change positively and others react with such resistance. It is not just that changes receive negative interpretations, rather the change conflicts directly with a deeply held expectation or belief about how things should be. Entire disciplines of science rest on the assumption that the physical world is stable and predictable; atoms and molecules will always behave according to a set of laws. Without consciously calling the names of these laws to mind, we continuously operate in the world as if they are always and invariably applicable. Imagine, for example, how discombobulating it would be if, in a seemingly random array of places, gravity were no longer to work for minutes at a time. The book at our side might float off only to come crashing down somewhere else when gravity again took hold. I suggest that life as we know it could not exist under such chaotic conditions. Widespread changes that seem to violate the “laws” of our social and occupational worlds have a similar effect.
There are many factors explaining the rise of the modern corporation as a means of organizing work. Economies of scale, control over more aspects of production, and dominance of markets are likely suspects. Another function of the corporate organization (and another impetus to its emergence in history) is that it makes occupational life more stable and predictable. In our own industry, consulting firms, especially larger ones, shield their staffs from the income peaks and valleys that often plague solo practitioners. Far from being just a collateral by-product, I believe the stability function of organizations is of critical organic importance. Involuntary change strikes at something deeper and more basic. It calls into question the predictability of the known world and thus the survival of the organism. If gravity is episodic, what of all our assumptions based on its constancy? If work is unstable, and with it our incomes and ways of life, then what of plans for tomorrow?
Our culture teaches us to externalize self-esteem; that is, to evaluate ourselves in terms of the accouterments of life, such as wealth, family, social standing, or education. Large-scale social and economic changes too often threaten the outer circumstances of life, especially if our grip on these things is tenuous anyway. The external, or concrete, anchorage of self-esteem fosters a certain immobility of thought and restriction of action in the face of change. By contrast, I believe an internal, or enlightened, self-esteem is one we carry with us regardless of outer circumstances.
Implications for Change LeadersBecause the widespread adoption of an enlightened self-esteem is not likely to happen soon, change leaders will continue to confront the behavioral by-products of an interaction between the changes they champion and the mindware of the people affected by those changes. Nonetheless, there are several leadership strategies for regulating individual and organizational responses to change.
First, match pace with circumstance. Implement quickly changes that strike more threateningly at peoples’ jobs. While a single trauma is rarely a positive experience, it is infinitely preferable to the prolonged and exponential impact of cumulative trauma. However, remember that rapid cataclysmic ecological change may “get it over with” quicker, but it also typically kills vast numbers of individuals and species in the process. Go slow, then, with cultural change. Allow time for people to “buy-in” to new visions and possibilities.
Second, know that your managers and employees are likely to internalize blame for the circumstances that lead to a need for change. Remind them that most ecological niches eventually deteriorate, and adaptation means continuous (not necessarily convulsive) change. The need for change is occasioned not by their action or inaction, but by normal forces that affect life on this planet.
The conundrum change leaders face is how to balance needed change against needed stability. Do not change simply for change’s sake. All changes in organizational life should fit within a larger vision of survival adaptation. Just because others undertake a change strategy does not mean it is right for you. Before implementing a change, ask yourself: “How will I explain this course of actions to those whom it affects?” Imagine yourself in their shoes. If the explanation fails to make sense, find a new rationale or do not make the change.
Third, think carefully about the organization’s purpose. Current wisdom suggests that the corporation’s reason for existence is to benefit its shareholders. Seen in this light, convulsive change that benefits capital is highly desirable, regardless of its human costs. Seen against a purpose of providing relative stability for those inside the organization, such rapid change is unacceptably costly. If growth of capital and return on investment is paramount, then say so up front and often. Recognize that humans are, by virtue of their advanced cortical capabilities, biologically predisposed to search for meaning in life. We constantly try to make sense out of what is happening around us. Conspiracy theories abound in part because we lack complete information, in part because of paranoia, and in no small part because our brains are ceaselessly trying to make sense of life events. Meaning-making is a reflexive function of the cerebral cortex. Making the organization’s purpose clear helps employees align their efforts in a single direction. Perhaps more importantly, it also helps those who cannot embrace the purpose (recognize, for example, that growing capital will not be meaningful for everyone) to choose a new path.
Fourth, brace yourself for rampant cynicism. In the early 1800’s, a region of upstate New York was swept by so many religious movements that it is called the “Burned-Over District” by historians, reflecting the many instances where people were inflamed with the fires of religious fanaticism. Organizations are becoming the new Burned-Over District. So many companies in so many industries have endured so many successive change initiatives that managers and employees alike have trouble seeing new change projects as anything other than the fad of the moment. Plethoras of recent books attempt to separate substance from fad among the precepts of organizational development. One national magazine, Fast Company, has a regular column called the “Consultant Debunking Unit.” The river of cynicism runs deep through organizational life.
Jeanie Daniel Duck, writing in the Harvard Business Review (Duck, 1993), captures the cynical attitude with her phrase “change survivors,” possibly the opposite of what others call “change travelers.” Reversing the negative attitudes of change survivors requires perseverance in several actions.
Obsessively talk about what is happening with everyone affected by the changes at all levels of the organization. Keep focusing attention on the immediate need for change and on the long-term benefits that change will have for the organization as a whole. Furthermore, assist everyone with focusing their attention on those events likely to happen in the future rather than dwelling nostalgically on the past.
Allow managers and employees to express the full range of their emotions; in this context, the leader becomes chief mourner, helping others ventilate a panoply of emotions ranging from anger and fear to hope and optimism.
Repeatedly point the way forward to the desired state; be a guide at the side of subordinates and peers, not a remote sage on a stage; and, most of all, to the maximum extent possible avoid changing the rules at midstream - predictability preserves trust.
Finally, recognize that, as a change leader, the transition will be easier for you than for others. As a proponent for change, you are not being changed. There are no primitive biological instincts screaming out to you that rapid discontinuous change threatens your survival. Consequently, it is likely that your timetable for change will not be in synchrony with others; so, modify your expectations accordingly.
Thoughts From Along the Evolutionary RoadTwo divergent schools of thought are fashionable among those professionals who consult on change management. The first notion, rooted deep in behavioral psychology and medical psychiatry, holds that humans are capable of infinite adaptation and thus labels difficulties with change as “Adjustment Disorders.” To this way of thinking, failure to change is pathological and treatable with verbal and chemical therapies.
The second school of thought, rooted in other more humanistic approaches
to psychotherapy, teaches that change, especially abrupt change, is traumatic
for individuals and organizations alike. To this view, management’s role is
to avoid changes that threaten and destabilize employees; anything else appears
cruel and insensitive.
A rational approach to managing change recognizes and accommodates the dialectical nature of the change experience. Change in organizational life, as in the biosphere, is inevitable and necessary. At the same time, change is deeply unsettling to those being changed. Daniel Quinn (1992) posits a provocative idea in Ishmael, his Turner Tomorrow Prize winning book. Quinn suggests that an idea underlying Western Civilization is that evolution has stopped and that humans are the winners destined forever to be kings atop the biological hill. Why should we assume, Quinn asks, that evolution stops with us? Maybe, in another few millennia, humans, or another species, will evolve yet further. Perhaps we can say the same about human work and organizations.
Duck, J.D. (1993). “Managing change: The art of balancing.” Harvard Business Review, November 1, 1993.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1995). The Optimistic Child. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
 While beyond the scope of this paper, a number of excellent resources are available for readers interested in approaches to enlightening self-esteem. See, for example, work on emotional intelligence and optimism by Daniel Goleman (1994) and Martin Seligman (1996).
Dr. Marc T. Frankel consults nationally on organizational development, leadership, change management, executive assessment and coaching. Dr. Frankel, a founding partner in Leadership Innovation Associates (St. Louis), is Principal Consultant with Triangle Associates of St. Louis. He is Past-President of the Society for Psychologists in Management, and Managing Editor of its journal, The Psychologist-Manager.
Dr. Frankel consults, trains and coaches primarily in the healthcare, education, and biotechnology industries. He develops and conducts numerous training programs for hospitals, business, government, and professional associations. His programs on Organizational Development, Team-Building, Managing Change, Personal Performance Enhancement, and Leadership have been presented to groups of managers and physicians in a variety of health care organizations.
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