Ethical Change Management

In a business climate tainted by scandals such Enron, Tyco and Adelphia, it is much more ‘professional’ and MBA-like to discuss solutions to management problems with strategies more along the lines of Corporate Governance, Sarbanes-Oxley and Fiduciary Duties … than by reacquainting readers with the Golden Rule. Yet, despite the depreciation of the simple in light of the complex and insanely expensive, there is still great value to gain by going back to the basics.

The Golden Rule is short, sweet and to the point. “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” There’s not much there, it won’t fill up the proverbial yellow binder, and it’s rather difficult to wrap a week long (expensive) seminar around the concept.

Adhere to the Golden Rule, and deceit becomes impossible. Obey it, and the notion of keeping two sets of books is inconceivable. Follow the Golden Rule, and ask others to monitor our actions against that rule, and the Sarbanes-Oxley structure of checks and balances become superfluous.

For all its brevity and simplicity, the Golden Rule has weight, and if diligently followed, it’s a constant and reliable moral compass. It’s also a succinct guide to good people management.

There isn’t a single culture which doesn’t have some variation of the Golden Rule at the heart of their primary religion. Here are just some of these variations:

Baha’i Faith. Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.

Buddhism. Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

Christianity. In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Confucianism. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

Hinduism. This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.

Islam. Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.

Jainism. One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.

Judaism. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

Sikhism. I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.

Taoism. Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.

Unitarianism. We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Zoroastrianism. Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.


What does any of this have to do with Managing Change? Compare the old management jest – “Do as I say, and not as I do” against the Golden Rule -” and then ask which one best describes how organizations typically manage Change. Also ask which one would make a more effective Change Management strategy.

Here’s an observation which will serve as the starting point for the application of the Golden Rule to Change Management.

All of us embrace Change, once we decide it is necessary.

I’m well aware that in some sense, this is an obviously true statement, but just because it’s “obviously true” doesn’t mean it’s without value. There are four important components to this observation.

  1. All of us embrace Change once we decide it is necessary to do so.
    The decision to change is one we make inside our own heads, it is personal, and a precondition of true acceptance. At some point we have to decide this is the right thing for us to do.
  2. All of us embrace Change once we decide it is necessary to do so.
    We follow a decision making process. We do not randomly change what we’ve been doing. We need a reason to stop doing what we’re doing and do something new. We are rational beings and don’t act randomly.
  3. All of us embrace Change once we decide it is necessary to do so.
    It’s not sufficient for us that a Change be possible – it is a requirement that we deem it necessary for some reason.

    And then there is the component which brings the Golden Rule into play.

  4. All of us embrace Change once we decide it is necessary. The first three components define how we as individuals decide to Change. This last component is the ‘not so subtle’ reminder that everyone decides to embrace Change in the same way.

The reciprocity of the Golden Rule is mandatory if our objective is for people to Change with a minimum of resistance. We could restate the Golden Rule one more time to accommodate the issue of Change Management.

The Golden Rule of Change Management
Allow others to Change, as you would have others allow you to Change.

Here’s a little test. List all people in your organization who willingly embrace Change without a reason. It’s not necessary that you understand their reasoning, or even agree with their reasons; all that’s necessary is that they don’t have a reason to Change, but embrace Change regardless. How did you do? How long is your list? Based upon my experiences, such people don’t exist. We all need reason to Change.

Yet … despite the reality of how individuals choose to change, we tend to manage the Change process as if how they naturally decide to change, is irrelevant.

Consider the concept of “Buy-in”, usually used in the context of: “How do we get them to ‘buy-into’ the new ‘X’” where ‘X’ is anything from a new accounting system, a re-organization, relocation, to a new sales commission scheme.

The correct answer is to allow everyone access to the same information that enabled the purveyors of this Change to decide for themselves that this Change is necessary. In other words, to allow others to decide to Change as we allowed ourselves to decide to Change.

The wrong answer, and unfortunately the most commonly used one, is to try and sell the ‘solution’, without ever defining what the problem was. This circumvents the three components of the observation, “All of us embrace Change once we(1) decide(2) it is necessary(3).” The Golden Rule of Change, would seem to suggest that the way to smoother Change Management is, to the best of our ability, to allow everyone to decide for themselves that the Change is necessary.

Management’s fear seems to be two fold …

  1. We can’t afford the time to allow for everyone to come to their own decision;
  2. What if they don’t agree with our conclusion?

The answer to the first objection is that the time lost in deciding, is less than the time lost to overcome the resistance generated when Change is mandated.

The second objection is more interesting. It means that Management either lacks confidence in the accuracy of their decision or in the ability of their staff to reason as well as management.

To accommodate those fears, we demand that others change in a manner contrary to how we choose for ourselves to Change. In other words… do as we say, not as we do.