Yang: Change In Organizations Is Very Personal…

By ELENA YANG
Los Alamos

Change In Organizations Is Very Personal:  If it’s not about “me,” why would I resist/embrace changes coming my way?

Once in a while, I let my fingers make the decision on what to review and write about. These 10 digits came across two decade-old articles in my file. Both are Harvard Business Review (HBR) articles about “change”; one is by John Kotter, a big name in organizational change, but his article didn’t do much for me. The other is by two psychologists, Robert Kegan and Laskow Lahey; after my initial irritation subsided – which I will explain below – I found the content intriguing and useful.

Between these two, I had a small “aha” moment: Any organizational change, big or small, touches every individual’s life within it; so of course, it becomes personal. Therefore, executing changes ultimately rests on all those who do the groundwork (and sometimes although not always, grunt work). 

It is the lowest level of managers who can best gauge (if they have ample emotional intelligence) how changes may impact their people’s lives, both within and outside the organization. (Remember the mantra: work/life is not dichotomous but intertwined!) Decisions on changes are mostly made at the top level, but the execution is local. 

So, why did Kegan & Lahey’s article irk me at the beginning? They set up their frame by using the conventional “employees vs. management” stance. If we keep separating managers from the ranks of employees, we only help feed their sense of  (underserved) entitlement. Granted, I haven’t come up with a more economical expression to discuss issues touching managers and “other” employees – will keep at it – I do believe that part of the responsibilities for students and scholars studying organizations is to take the effort and space to make these distinctions. 

Back to the article, the initial tone continues to discuss the “fears” employees may experience during the change, the shift in their power and their career track, the rendering of old skills obsolete or the requirement to invest time and commitment in new skills, etc. The resistance is understandable but all the hard work seems to be in the court of employees, while managers should “help people overcome their limitations to become more successful at work.” 

At least, the authors acknowledge that such would be what effective managers would do. In order for managers to be this effective, it means that they themselves are wise about their own limitations and have learned how to deal with them! 

But the rest of article improves on me. The authors’ focus is at the individual level, in particular, why a person would espouse the need for change and the readiness to embrace proposed changes, but act in opposition. The authors term this situation, “competing commitments.”

They offer a few good examples, including one of low level of manager, but I like the following one the most. John’s career was promising, and he seemed to enjoy his work. But while he talked about welcoming his colleagues’ suggestions, he often shot down their ideas using sarcasm. Working with these psychologists, he uncovered his competing commitment. John is a person of color in an otherwise all white work environment. What emerged was that if he worked “too” effectively with his white colleagues, he’d feel as if he sold out his family and friends. By pushing his colleagues away, he would remain on the margin where he was more comfortable. In other words, his personal identity was clashing with his organizational identity. 

In order to change, of course people have to face what’s in the current system that demands and warrants the change. Basically, what are people complaining about?  Conversely, what do they really care about? However, just because they complain about an area, and therefore would likely accept changes in that area, doesn’t necessarily translate to their willingness in actions and commitment to bring about effective changes. To uncover what’s hidden in the form of competing commitment, these authors offer a series of questions: 

  1. “What would you like to see changed at work, so that you could be more effective or so that work would be more satisfying?” So, John might respond to this question with something like, “I would like to see a more coherent team,” or, “we should appreciate others’ ideas and suggestions.”

But in order to understand the root of these possible commitments, we need to be able to answer this next question:

  1. “What commitments does your complaint imply?” For John, it could be, “others don’t accept my suggestion/idea,” or, “sometimes, communication gets very tense in the team.”

Almost always, individuals (I would add, managers included) quite unwittingly contribute to situation on which they lodge their complaints. This leads to the third question:

  1. What are you doing, or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized?” Answers to this question would help people see how their own actions can undermine their potential success. In John’s case, he would realize that he needed to stay marginalized, often by pushing people’s ideas away via sarcasm. Now, John had to contemplate what the consequences might be if he overcame this need for marginalization. 
  1. “If you imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior, do you detect in yourself any discomfort, worry, or vague fear?” All the questions thus far require one to be brutally honest with oneself, which in itself can be embarrassing, frightening, and threatening enough, but I think this question requires even deeper emotional commitment. If we are not accustomed to grasping our emotions and giving words to them, we may be really stuck here. 

But this is where John would uncover his competing commitment, where he would understand his work and life felt out of kilter because if he got too chummy with his white co-workers, it might mean that he had abandon his “own” community. This then is reflected in the final question:

  1.  “By engaging in this undermining behavior, what worrisome outcomes are you committed to preventing?” The answer to this question lies in the life “outside” John’s work, his community of people of color. 

Competing commitment is one of the most natural self-protective reactions in us. Except, protect us from what? To keep peeling the onion…to protect us from some basic assumption we have established long ago; in fact, so long ago, that we have internalized it as if it is the truth, a taken-for-granted truth. In John’s case, his personal identity might be threatened by his work relationships with whites. But his fear was based on an assumption that he’d be rejected by his community if he hung out with whites or became integrated into the white people’s world. It was an assumption never tested. 

Once a person identifies such a basic assumption, it doesn’t automatically lead to the “correct” action that will right everything. If only changes in our thoughts and behaviors would be that easy! The authors identify four steps:

  1. Notice and record current behavior.
  2. Look for contrary evidence.
  3. Explore the history.
  4. Test the assumption.

At first, pause, let the new realization sink in…has one missed opportunities elsewhere due to one’s big assumption? Look for examples of people in similar situation, and see how they handle it. John noticed an African-American manager who seemed to enjoy working with her white colleagues without compromising her personal identity.  The roots for one’s big assumptions can go a long way back, but trying to grasp the history will help toward the elimination of them. Then, one takes a small step to test such an assumption. John signed up for some community work outside the organization for the sake of his personal identity while getting involved in a different work project and practicing his new commitment to listen to and consider others’ ideas. 

Real life is a whole lot messier. That’s why Kotter’s short article, which basically lists eight steps to “transforming your organization,” is akin to saying “buy low and sell high.” Very true yet very unsatisfactory for execution. His eight steps are: 

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Creating a vision
  4. Communicating the vision
  5. Empowering others to act on vision
  6. Planning for and crating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches.

This might be just a summary of his body of work, which is substantial, but it really could be a lot more interesting and illuminating. 

Someone made an observation to me about organizational change: The changes usually have positive impact on the top organizational level but often negatively impact the rest of the organization. Unfortunately, I think this remark captures a significant truth. Contributors to the management literature should consider ceasing to harp about “employees’ resistance” to organizational changes and instead re-examine the whole dynamics of changes in organizations, with more attention to the personal dimensions of people’s lives in organizations. All people, from bottom upward. In other words, changes impact everyone in the whole organization, and even a local change is likely to have ripple effects on others.

Until you can find and embrace a change coming your way,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

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