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After working in the field of organizational development for several years, I have had to learn many hard truths about organizational change in business.

The first hard truth I’ve had to accept about business is that the good guys don’t always win. I know of several massively dysfunctional organizations that make tons of money and are recognized as the darlings of Wall Street. In these organizations, vision and values have no connection to reality, and people remain primarily because they get a piece of the action in the form of “sticky” compensation plans or relatively rich benefits. While these organizations may advertise themselves as places where people matter, or as collaborative environments where people can make a difference, the truth is that their employee relations strategy is to pay off the people they need, and replace the rest whenever it’s convenient or practical to do so.

Truth #1: Cynical, sad, but true: organizational success, defined only in bottom line terms, has nothing to do with whether or not people are happy, fulfilled or have the opportunity to find meaning in their work. If people believe that profit is all that matters, whether you’re talking about business or personal profit, there is little you can do to change the belief if they can “prove” that it’s true and their needs for money and status are satisfied.

Another hard truth I’ve had to learn is that what people believe is more important than “the truth,” and that even distorted beliefs can have enormous staying power. All of the dysfunctional organizations mentioned above have a core of “true believers” in leadership positions who, as long as they perceive themselves as favored children and continue to get a piece of the action, will defend the organization and hold the vision and values as gospel, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Much like the Communists of old, they constantly and publicly proclaim their loyalty and commitment to the organization’s direction and dogma, and root out non-believers who fail to get with the program. Generally they avoid the “show trials” used by the Communists and instead use stealth and secrecy to maneuver non-believers out of the organization. They do this because deep down inside, they know that the foundation on which they’ve built their beliefs is a very fragile thing, so they feel threatened by anyone who questions that foundation.

Truth #2: Organizational success depends more on the strength of the belief system, no matter how distorted that belief system may be. “If we believe it, it must be true” is a very powerful force. As long as an organization possesses a few leaders with the ability to effectively respond to opportunities and threats in the marketplace with crystalline clarity, its chances of bottom line success remain high if those leaders can convince the people that do the work that the direction has a payoff. The process of convincing people of that does not require in any way that leaders tell the truth. “If they believe it, that’s good enough.” Distortion “works” if enough people believe in the distorted information.

The third truth is the most important, because it opens the door to positive change. Sometimes leadership’s sales pitches don’t work and people don’t get with the program. The frustrated response of leadership is to “clean house.” These efforts are rarely successful because the belief system has a life of its own. If you talk to people who have served in the Navy, you’ll find that many are absolutely convinced that there’s such a thing as a “bad ship.” This is a ship that is so cursed and unlucky that even if you replaced all the officers and crew with new ones, the curse would remain in place and it would continue to be a bad ship. They’re actually right! The myth of the bad ship spreads like wildfire through the ranks, so anyone transferred to the ship goes in believing that they’re in for an unlucky experience. It’s a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same is true for organizations with a bad reputation in the employment market: if “everyone knows” that an organization is a mess, they’ll either avoid the place entirely or, desperate for a job, join the organization with teeth clenched, prepared for the worst.

Truth #3: Belief systems can become myths and myths have a life of their own. Ignore myths at your peril! The key to successful and healthy organizational change is to identify the myths, expose them as myths and reeducate people to deal with the world as is rather than what they would like it to be.

That last truth is connected to another truth: organizations move away from a bottom line mentality only when its members, especially those in leadership, feel enough pain to motivate them to change their beliefs and habits. When everyone’s making money and feeling flush, it’s easy to ignore the distortions, waste, inauthenticity and absurdity that characterize a dysfunctional organization. Only when an organization experiences failure will its members become willing to face the truth and begin to create an organization that is something more than an entity that exploits and is exploited by its members.

The final truth involves something every organizational development practitioner has to accept: not everyone shares your values! While you may believe in the importance of creating a humane workplace where people collaborate to create a truly meaningful and productive work experience, that belief may not be shared by people grounded in the hard world of profit and loss. This is why an OD practitioner has to assess each consulting opportunity with cold objectivity, and determine whether they’re hiring you to help create positive change or engaging in a window-dressing exercise.

Still, even if you think the odds are a long shot, go for it if there are few slivers of tangible evidence that positive change may be possible. There are few experiences in life as satisfying as helping people face the truth, learn how to deal with it and choose their own directions.

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Your likely career path in a 21st Century economy.

Myths die hard. One that still holds sway is that the path to success and stability is that the key to life is to study hard, nail your SAT, go to a good college, find your true calling and you’ll be set for the rest of your life.

Young adults are finding out today that reality paints a very different picture. The unemployment rate for young adults is more than double the national unemployment rate. Those that set their minds to tune into one channel—finding a job within their major field of study—are dropping out of the ranks of job seekers or accepting the low-paying service jobs that many of them filled back in high school.

A related and possibly more dangerous myth is to write off the problem to a temporary downturn in the economy. The problem with that myth is that “the economy” itself is a myth; the truth is that there are thousands of “small economies” that really determine a person’s employability. Geology majors are likely doing well if they’re willing to move to North Dakota and take advantage of the energy boom in that state. On the flip side, nursing grads are having a very difficult time finding work in the Seattle area due to the fact that all of the local hospitals are going through massive reorganizations and realignments as they try to cope with the uncertainty surrounding the economic future of health care.

Nursing grads unable to find work! Who would have thought?

Young adults need to realize that a life plan organized around a single focus is not a very smart option in the 21st Century. The world economy is in flux. Ongoing developments in technology ensure that the employment situation will be a creative-destructive cycle spinning ever faster in the future. The job you had your heart set on when you started your major may not even exist by the time you graduate, and no field is exempt from this hard reality. As Nate Silver so brilliantly demonstrates in The Signal and the Noise, human beings are pretty lousy at predicting the future, and economic forecasts are among the most unreliable of all human predictions.

The truth is that this is a challenge that affects all of the generations, not just young adults. Mid-career professionals may find that their once clear career path has vanished. Late-career adults find that their experience in a particular field is no longer valued, due to either age discrimination or allowing their comfort to blind them to the fact that continuous learning is a necessity in a fast-changing economy.

So, we all share the problem, but lucky for us, we all have the solution within. There is no law, genetic or societal, that says that human beings have to be just one thing. We are all creatures of many interests, so why limit ourselves to a single interest when we look for employment opportunities? In today’s world, Plan A may not work and even Plan B may turn out to be a losing proposition. All working adults, whatever their age, need to continually expand and explore their interests so that they have a Plan C, D and E at their disposal.

This is why I highly recommend that every working-age adult complete The Strong Interest Inventory. In its simplest sense, The Strong helps a person visualize the breadth and depth of life interests. While the Strong will also give you a list of ten professions that are most promising for you in light of your interests, I have found that its real value is making people re-engage with life interests that they may have shoved to the side by shifting to a single-minded pursuit of employment.

When the watchword for today’s economy is “Who knows?”, staying in touch with the full array of our interests may be the key to securing a steady income stream. You may find that the thing you’ve always considered a hobby is suddenly in great demand in the job market; you may even find that the hobby is such a passion that you are motivated to try to turn in into a profitable business. Perhaps there was something you loved to do in high school but put to the side because at the time you weren’t getting any validation for it. Realize that what is in vogue now may not be in vogue ten years from now, and that there are more important reasons for you to pursue an interest than the search for validation from others.

So, if you haven’t done so (or haven’t done so in years), take The Strong Interest Inventory from a certified practitioner. There are many career counselors in both private practice and inside the career centers of higher education who are Strong-certified and have additional resources to help you figure out your options.

One final piece of advice: don’t take The Strong or go to a career counselor with the sole purpose of finding a job. Go to find out who you are. Ironically, that may be a much more successful approach to dealing with the future.

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One of the first films I saw dealing with change was Survival Skills for the Future, with Jennifer James. I can still remember (pretty much verbatim) a sequence in that film where she explains the new world order:

“I ask employees, ‘What’s wrong?’ and they say, ‘Our managers don’t know what they’re doing.’ I ask the managers and they say, ‘Our executives don’t know what they’re doing.’ I ask the executives, ‘Is this true?’ and they say, ‘Yes!'”

I work a lot with people who are trying to survive in a world of perpetual change and the common feeling they share is frustration, whatever their organizational level. When I dig a little deeper, though, the cause of the frustration is not so much the change cycle or the transition process but something else.

People are frustrated that they never feel a sense of completion in their work.

There are two variations of this experience. The first is the simple, “done with one thing, on to the next thing.” This gets very old after a while, because people never get to celebrate their victories or process what they learned from the experience. Without some kind of pause to acknowledge the ending of a project, people feel cheated and unappreciated. They can’t stand back from the canvas and appreciate the painting when it’s done. I call this Assembly Line Change because it’s the same monotonous experience on a different time scale.

The second variation gets back to the Jennifer James passage, particularly the line, “Our executives don’t know what they’re doing.” The causes are a lack of commitment to and the absence of consensus on an intelligent strategy, which leads executives to steer the company as if they were driving in a Grand Prix on a treacherous mountain road towards an unknown destination. Rather than pull over, look at the map and make course corrections, they abandon one strategy for another and talk themselves into believing that it will work. This is what employees called “getting jerked around,” and its frequency has increased with the economic malaise we’ve all suffered through.

When an employee thinking about leaving a company that’s going through Grand Prix Change comes to me for advice, I abandon my usually neutral, let-me-help-you-think-things-through counseling approach and say, “Yes. Get the hell out, now!” Eventually the car is going to stall and there the executive will sit, cranking the starter again and again while shouting, “Why won’t this damn thing work?”

Assembly Line Change, on the other hand, is fixable. Great leaders know that you build milestones into a project and celebrate what Kouzes and Posner call “small wins.” They also know that you need to build time into the schedule for celebrating successes so people can recharge their batteries and move to the next project with energy and confidence.

Change isn’t going to go away, and neither are bad leaders. Let’s hope we can continue to develop leaders who will choose to make sure that people have the chance to feel a sense of completion and accomplishment in their work. Because we derive so much personal meaning from our work in modern society, feeling a sense of completion is a critical need in the the workplace today.


Wikipedia’s overview of Organizational Development contains the following explanation of the role of a change agent:

A change agent in the sense used here is not a technical expert skilled in such functional areas as accounting, production, or finance. The change agent is a behavioral scientist who knows how to get people in an organization involved in solving their own problems. A change agent’s main strength is a comprehensive knowledge of human behavior, supported by a number of intervention techniques (to be discussed later). The change agent can be either external or internal to the organization. An internal change agent is usually a staff person who has expertise in the behavioral sciences and in the intervention technology of OD.

I disagree that “a change agent’s main strength is comprehensive knowledge of human behavior” and a bag of tricks called intervention techniques. The change agent’s main strengths must be personal integrity and the ability to engage with and fully understand the people and the culture they’re trying to help.

While expertise is certainly important, the truth is that many people are suspicious of experts, especially when they perceive those experts as “talking down to them.” This creates defensive behavior that eliminates any possibility of real dialogue. Without real dialogue, the change agent will always miss what the change in question really means to the people involved. Without that understanding, the change process will become corrupted. Unless the change agent inspires trust, his or her knowledge of human behavior and intervention techniques will prove perfectly useless. Expertise can never be a substitute for personal integrity.

Personal integrity involves more than “doing what you say you’re going to do.” It also involves more than a commitment to help people solve their own problems, or what we call “helping people work through their choices.” That commitment is important, but a change agent will not be much help to people without mastery of the most important competency of all: self-awareness.

A change agent often ignores the fact that when they are trying to change an organization, he or she is acting from the self. Without self-awareness, a change agent can easily contaminate a change process with hidden agendas and unsatisfied psychological needs. Without engaging in the often difficult personal exploration that leads to self-awareness, a change agent will never be capable of the reflective insight that is key to developing a healthier organization. Self-awareness also has the curious effect of increasing the ability to empathize with others and the problems they face in trying to become more capable human beings. When a change agent combines a lack of empathy with a laser-like focus on behavior, the only things that change are the things on the surface. You may create compliant human beings who learn how to tell you want you want to hear, but you have changed nothing except given people a different game to play. They’ll learn the new rules and speak the new language, but the underlying problems will remain undisturbed.

Authenticity is critical to successful change. Unless people are open and honest with each other, hidden problems will always disrupt a change effort. The change agent’s role, therefore, must include the ability to model authenticity. The change agent needs to put all the cards on the table and encourage others to do the same.

However, it is impossible to engage in that kind of authenticity without self-awareness. If you have no idea who you are, how can anyone else know who you are? And if they don’t know who you are, how on earth can they trust you? Without trust, you will never get the unfiltered information you will need to help effect positive and lasting change. Focusing entirely on structures, systems, processes and behavior is a completely inadequate approach to change. All transformational change begins with self-awareness and ends in mutual trust.

All your expertise won’t save you if they don’t see you as someone they can trust.

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