Human insights that support change (Part II)

To continue the questions from Part I – can effective change happen without taking onboard the behavioural science knowledge of who we are as humans and what our nature is about? Is there any hope that most change agents will go beyond the formulated, project management, task-based focus change approach?

It is true that up to this point, organisations still continue to stick to managing change by focusing on only those three key elements (formulae led, project management and task based), but what is the measure of how long this type of change will last, especially in this progressively more complex and chaotic world when no one can solve problems and issues within any system by their sheer intelligence?

What also does not help is that the definition of what is successful change is so split that very little agreement has been reached by either researchers or practitioners. Some of the measures that have been used are:

  • whether corresponding behavioural shifts have come with the change;
  • whether the change delivers the much desired value e.g. efficiency saving, growth revenue;
  • whether there is a genuine shift of customer loyalty;
  • how long it takes for a merger case to start paying off the investment;
  • how long before the ultimately desired, longer-term ROI will/can become reality;
  • during the process, whether people have shifted something fundamental that will stand them in good stead to keep continuously shifting.

Worst of all, if the change has not been done well, how long will the negative impact on people’s psychological contracting with the organisation last?  The fact is that, at this time, nobody knows for sure – except there is sufficient research to give us some indications that the news is not great, as those of us who are working closely with complex change can also testify through years of experience.

The key message is not that the task-focused, project management approach is wrong, but it must not take dominance. Instead, its role is to stay in the back room – forming the infrastructure and becoming the backbone of the change programme, while the front room will need to continue to focus on using methodologies that will honour the nature of being human.

In Part I, we raised three key areas in change, especially by working with some key aspects of human nature: -

  1. What motivates the leaders will not be the same thing that motivates other staff and managers. Everyone holds a different reality in their heads and there is a genuine need to make meaning of what the change is about from their personal perspective before they will work with it.
  2. People support what they help to create. If people are given a chance to co-construct the future that they have to live in, they will be more willing or even happier to commit to the change.
  3. People are made up of different components – and energy is just as important as logic (cognitive reasoning) when it comes to change – if we can tap into the different sources of energy people have while helping them to make personal sense of which aspects of the change appeal to them, then we are heading for a winning formula. In this context, a strength-based approach (not as an exclusive perspective) will also help to get better results from people.

Following the theme, the next insight about working with human nature in change that was stimulated by the McKinsey article is: -

4.  Leadership and role modelling should be of a “distributed nature” – most of us want to be of significance and want to be a “hero” to influence others.

In the article, Aiken and Keller mention the importance of having clear role models in change, as they will accelerate the change processes. Having said that, the authors also acknowledge the limitations of a Grand Leader theory, as such things seldom work.

Having your CEO openly demonstrate the required cultural change behaviour is very powerful to attract the staff’s attention but, day-by-day, the more we move away from grooming a few selected leaders to serve as icons for the system, and move towards encouraging every individual – leader or not – to live out their value, and their yearning to live a “larger than who they are” life, and encourage group members to role model behaviour that will inspire each other to act – we will have a greater chance to influence more people to move voluntarily along the continuum of greater and greater self-activated energy.

There still exists a great tendency among us to worship leaders as heroes but, as Bion points out, heroes often disappoint us, as so much of that worship is a matter of our own projection and transference – the fight and flight tendency. In change, what we each need is to help create conditions that will encourage ourselves and others to stretch to discover that a mini hero resides inside us. When we do that, especially within a cohesive group context, our identity will be strengthened by the group’s affirmation, and our ability to contribute in a stretching way will be amazing to watch.

At the beginning of the current conflict in Afghanistan, one of the technical personnel from the BBC was driving the equipment up to one of the highest summits to establish a satellite station so that the world could receive news of what would be happening in the country and region. But when he and his team reached the road they planned to drive up to the summit, they found that it had been blown apart. He walked into the nearest village and gave them most of their US dollars to buy whatever number of donkeys were available and to hire locals to help him and his team mount all the technical equipment and hike up to the summit. The trekking was very difficult but they did eventually get to the top and set up the satellite. They recorded the journey and beamed that back to the BBC, where the home crew were overwhelmed by their colleagues’ bravery, determination, their willingness to risk themselves and undertake such an unbelievable task. That film clip was used during the big change in the BBC to role model what the BBC transformation was about. Every time the film clip was shown, there was never a dry pair of eyes.

5.  Psychological safety is important to release people from anxiety and move them on with greater confidence to experiment.

Most people would not like to admit that they do not know how to change their own behaviour in a personal manner. As the McKinsey article so eloquently states, most people have a self-serving bias (defined as human beings consistently think they are better than they are – a common psychological phenomenon). Hence it is hard to admit that I am wrong, or I do not know what you mean, or how do I do that, or I have no clue how to be inspirational. In change, instead of frightening people even more, we want to create conditions where people will develop greater confidence to experiment, admit what they know or do not know, allow them to show confusion for not being sure how they are supposed to step into the future. If we are to do that, we must find a face-saving, psychologically safer way to actively reduce anxiety, and introduce safety inducing methods to help people to learn how to practice new behaviour rather than digging in their heels and not moving within an acceptable contained area.

So many of our past tactics in change include publicly shaming people out of their reluctance to move, showing up their resistance in groups, assigning negative labels to those who would not come with us, etc. These tactics will not be acceptable to those who start off with a self preserving need to look good, nor for those who want to try but are too anxious about being exposed in a negative light. This is particularly the case in those organisations which still believe that wisdom resides at the top, and appearing to be competent all the time is the game. In those situations, the change will get lip service support, a “yes—but” type of response. Ultimately, self-energised commitment to sustain the change journey will be hollow.

6.  All humans have a set of needs that can be respectfully used as levers in change.

Most people, believe it or not, are human. I am not being cynical here, just referring to the fact that most change strategies portray organisations as full of robots and not as a living system. By that, I mean the people who work for the organisation are not perceived as thinking, feeling, intuitive beings, who can admire artistry as well as logic; who like intimacy and have a high sense of affiliation. Most of us understand the value of community, even if we tend to stride alone. Yet the predominant change approaches portray us as passive, steerable mindless robots.

Some of the commonalities of the human race are our need to be loved, cherished, recognised, approved, to be able to express our views, accorded a sense of significance, express what matters to us, act to make a difference, live in a holistic and integrated life if the context allows. The term Gestalt, wholeness, the need to own and work with the shadow side of us, the need to seek the greater good of the community, the importance to be congruent, etc, or Marshak’s idea about the need for balance and harmony in the Asian cyclical mode are all part of the need of humans to maintain balance and harmony. Often the work of culturalists depicts the differences in culture to an extent that we talk as if people from different cultures have different human needs. For example, the poker face of the Chinese, the non-disclosure side of the Japanese – “only dead fish open their mouths”, etc can be misinterpreted as that Asians have fewer emotional needs and expressions of them are not part of our cultural practices. In fact, as Marshak himself pointed out, the traditional Chinese concept is that mental activities are located in the heart. The Chinese word hsin means the “heart-mind”, i.e. thoughts and feelings are inseparable. The balance that all people (not just Asians) seek – consciously or unconsciously – is the key lever to pull to get the people dimension right in any change approach. Most of the fundamental OD change principles are paying attention to this set of human levers.

Summing up:

I am grateful for the McKinsey article, which shares psychological insight into how change agents need to use irrational human behaviour to help us to do change better. I can only assume that by using the term “irrational behaviour” they are influenced by most classical economists’ view of people – in which human beings’ behaviour is often designed to maximise their own interest, and that self-serving behaviour is defined as rational.

But history and research on altruistic behaviour has also shown that not all individuals (or, for that matter, institutions) are like that. In fact, individuals can see beyond what they can personally gain into greater collective gain. So the usage of the word “irrational” is really referring to actions that we take that are not necessarily to maximise our own interest. Is this possible? Yes – motivation of change is in fact one of those areas – even though in times like this many people do care about whether they have a job or not. But people are able to act collectively. For example, one of the organisations I worked for showed the top managers a whole package of financial information from the past and financial projections for the future – and gave them three options: a) immediately work together to make 28% of staff redundant; b) immediately work together to significantly cut spending by temporarily stopping the service and an efficiency drive on all expenditure; c) institute an aggressive revenue generation strategy. At the end of a large group intervention, the top 200 leaders voted for all of them take a 15% cut in monthly salary for nine months in order to avoid the deep 28% redundancy while working hard for (b) and (c). The management was stunned and touched. They agreed that if the organisation turned the corner, the nine month 15% cut would be paid back in two years.

Are these behaviours irrational? Yes – according to the classical economists, but our irrationality during change also helps to show up the magic of humanity. When given clear information, when leaders do not play games with people and treat them all as business partners, they vote to act in the most “irrational” way. By voting for this option, they all rolled up their sleeves and worked together very hard as they not only wanted their organisation to turn around, but they also wanted the organisation healthy enough to enable them to get their sacrifice repaid.

If we take ourselves (our own humanity) seriously, if we pay attention to how human nature manifests (as in our spouse, children, friends, and colleagues etc), if we look into our own moral character, we will know how to honour the human side of change in the front room, and while making sure the back room work on task, measurement, and project management are going well in support, then doing change well is easy.