Sunday 13 October 2013

Change management :: Why do we keep acting surprised when top-driven ("distant") change management efforts fail?

I am not an organisational change consultant but a management practitioner directly located at the receiving end of change management initiatives initiated in response to a restructuring or organisational alignment arising from a change in strategy and/or response to environmental changes. I manage employees that are impacted by such change and lie in the impact zone and I have to work actively towards assuaging their fears and concerns (which is a sub-set of management of change!). Change management impacts employee engagement, organisational commitment, job satisfaction and also contributes to office politics, which it itself can be a series of separate blogs!

I am aware that change is the only constant and hence am mature enough to accept that it is here to stay! Every economic down-turn results in the launching of change initiatives by impacted organisations who then ensure that they do not go back to a state of ‘complacency’. Most organisations now set their baselines to a new ‘low’ to ensure that the next wave of change (it is only a matter of time!) does not impact them or they believe they are mitigating against the same by enforcing ‘advance prudence’! As more they initiate more change organisations gain the false impression that they are building capability to absorb change, however, this does not mean that all employees (particularly lower in the hierarchy) are also learning from and adapting to on-going change. Many are suffering from 'change fatigue'!.

With each cycle I sometimes get the feeling that organisations end up adopting a 'ho-hum' attitude towards change i.e. the more change initiated the more likely that the organisation will assume that that the next change effort would be ‘easier’. In simple terms, we have 'cheapened the essence of change'!

The phrase ‘managing change’ is a misnomer. I do not agree that one can ‘manage’ change. You can facilitate it and hope to control its impact. There might be an element of contradiction in this statement but this reflects the reality that the best change agents or facilitators are the employees sitting within the organisation itself! I do realise that change decisions (and not necessarily their repercussions) are owned by senior management in the organisational hierarchy and there is a gap in efficient change management at grass-root levels. I also hold the belief that change management at grass-root levels is made more difficult as major damage has been done to the traditional employer-employee psychological contract due to on-going constant change and restructuring (hence my jibe about constant change actually ‘cheapening change’)!

If change is a constant then where are employees in this mix? Where are we preparing organisational cultures where employees are at the helm of the change rather than senior executives? One fallacy is the assumption that the decision to change is sufficient enough to allow for navigation of the change (and while we are at it lets throw in a management of change function and a ‘change agent’) to ‘manage the event’! There is no event to be managed!

My experience of organisational change is that most organisations place a premium upon 'directive leadership' or ‘telling’ (a style of influencing behaviour identified in the situational leadership model) style as leaders have to enforce specific steps. This change in style by a leader is viewed as temporary or transient (in line with various adaptive/situational leadership models for leadership styles), which I consider as an incorrect and flawed assumption given what we know about on-going waves of change (particularly in the IT industry where I make a 'risky' living!).

Change management is challenging as it typically originates at the top and the wave transmutes itself to the lower echelons. It starts off as a distant unemotional demand from the organisational leadership but as it moves down ranks below it acquires 'emotional momentum'! The same emotional distance at the top is typically diluted at the bottom (of the pyramid!) where 'rubber meets road'. Stanley Milgram outlined that there is an inverse correlation between an individual’s willingness to be cruel to someone else and their proximity to their victim. His theory was straight forward and outlined that it is progressively easier to inflict pain on those where there is distance.

This 'distanciation; (Bauman) and 'dehumanising' occurs as we think of employees as resources and only in quantitative terms. I am curious about research that links ‘distanciation’ with change management failure! I would argue that the greater the distance the easier the difficult change decisions that need to be taken and the more disassociated the nature of the decision-making. Perhaps that is why most change management initiatives fail? 

So why do many managers (myself included) implement change decisions without a fight or negotiation with these 'distant' decision makers? The answer potentially lies in the performance appraisal system implemented in most organisations that ensures that a manager will act on the instruction rather than question or 'fight' as this would be the best way to achieve 'arterial blockage' to one's career.

Maybe there is a need to review change dissonance i.e. how distant the person taking the decision or initiating the change is from the 'impact zone' and whether the greater the 'distanciation' the higher the failure rate of that change initiative? Would appreciate any guidance on insight on this. What do you say?


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  1. I wish I received a $1000 for each organisation change I had to go through for the past 30 years. Perhaps I would be able to retire.

    It seems that Senior Management always restructure or reorganise when they are missing their goals, but restructuring is often too frequent - not allowing that their teams settle in and get productive under the previous restructure before the next one is upon them.

    Oh yes and then my favourite: "management by perception rather than facts". It seems that the corporate animals (those who like to submission to management rather than thinking and acting individually) eventually get promoted to levels where their actual skill is limited and they manage and act on "what they think" instead of "what they know".

    1. Fanus...great to hear from...thanks for sharing...take care...

  2. I somehow think that companies which are forever changing their org. structures are forever at war, any we all know what happens when any war is prolonged - It doesn't benefit anyone!! I think its important for the top management of such companies to realize that changes initiated every now and then have that people element at the core of them, and if that's the medicine they are prescribing to the ills its most likely to fail!!!! Actually all this happens when they are not able to fix issues which are more difficult to handle!!

  3. Dear Deepak,
    Excellent thoughts; let me add my two bits: change occurs because there is a glass ceiling; a limit beyond which communication ceases, and instructions start. The lack of 2-way interaction, and the lack of a decent connect of senior management with the ground level is the core issue.

    When senior management visits, they are only shown what the branch wants them to see; why? Reason being - insecurity, and lack of tolerance for initiative. This cuts across industries, functions and levels. Second, quite a few senior management people dont visit the hinterland and smaller regions; even in the bigger regions, only a few key spots get attention. By and large, corporate guys are ok with this- in my experience, a senior management visit coincides with someone losing a promotion or even his job. Why then should anyone cooperate? They dont. Therein lies the real problem. There is no 2-way commiunication between boss and employee.

    Further, regarding organisation restructuring - let me be blunt: I have seen several such attempts; and most did not lead to any definable improvement over the previous system. Fact. Only achievement? Hundreds and Thousands of careers wrecked; I shall carry the tears of my employees with me to my funeral pyre. All for what? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And nearly 80% of those employees were more than 5 years old; more than 40% had 1-3 promotions behind them. That is strategy? Why should employees like change, when it destroys them? A person works his heart out, all for nothing? We need an urgent refurbishment of our internal systems and processes - before it destroys us - like the recent spate of scams that are rocking corporate India are proving. Brand India is fast losing its sheen; it is fast becoming a byname for shoddy practices. That is how most feel about it - but lack the courage to speak up.

    Please visit my blog for my thoughts on corporate India:

    Quite simply, this is a systemic failure cutting across all functions; KRAs are not designed well enough to capture or arrest this reality; internal checks and balances are not identifying, isolating and checking errant behaviour; internal systems are not in pace with the external market. This is what is evident in most scandals as well as the cases above- the pressure to perform, and the fear of a job-loss is leading the weaker (or smarter - depending on your viewpoint) employees to take recourse to short-term tactics.

    How is it an acceptable business practice to send erroneous bagging material to a plant? How did it go unchecked? How is it a good business practice if your product fails 38% of the time? How is it an acceptable practice if your sales are growing at an alarming rate on the back of pressure sales involving heavy discounts, shy-high inventories, sky-high cheque bouncing, unordered material being pushed in, abject lies to channel partners etc? How is advocating - shall we say - innovative ways to save tax - an acceptable business practice? How is falsifying documents and data an acceptable business practice?????? All these are rampant - if any change is required; it is tackling of these habits - even at the cost of toplines and bottomlines. But people who do try it, on the false impression of power, having risen to the second and third line - are systematically impeded, and moved out. Like me.

    Change? Try and change the internal bad habits first, sir... a humble request...

    The signs are bad:

    and this:

    An honest feedback from a blunt and straightforward employee who does not, has not and will not mince words even before a CEO...