Change by Legitimate or Illegitimate Means

Change in organizations can be brought about by legitimate or illegitimate means, with understandably different results. Take a look at this Fast Company article on the methods of consultant Fernando Flores for an example of change by illegitimate means. Typically, coercion, degradation and intimidation are the methods of choice by people I refer to as “Intentional Disconnectors,” individuals who tear others apart for the sake of an unhealthy need for ego gratification. Bob Sutton describes them well in his book The No Asshole Rule.

Many individuals who don’t have the convictions of their character will rationalize and sway to the Intentional Disconnector’s will because they fear to speak out and place a high value on safety and stability.  Some research seems to indicate that this group could number as high as eight out of ten individuals. One in ten will actually share the Intentional Disconnector’s values and have no objections. On the other end of the spectrum is the one person in ten who will oppose them. The opposer is an “Intentional Connector.” Professor Edgar Schein at MIT has described the three categories of people in his research on brainwashing and coercive persuasion as collaborators, resistors and passives.

There are several problems with illegitimate change methods. First, they’re wrong. They violate the universal values of respect and civility that moral philosophers and religious leaders have taught throughout history.  These are the same values that researchers in the field of positive psychology have identified as values that help groups to flourish and as such convey a survival advantage.  These values include kindness, prudence, humility, love and social intelligence.  Second, illegitimate change methods produce short-term change but ultimately contribute to managerial failure. Why?

Illegitimate change methods develop Knowledge Traps in organizations. In many individuals, coercion, degradation and intimidation trigger negative emotions such as fear and anger. The employee who feels fear or anger toward another employee or group of employees does not want to share knowledge with the offending party. In fact, the emotional response may be so strong that he will go so far as to sabotage the employee(s) who offended him. The relational breakdown and subsequent withholding of information reduces the probability that decision-makers will make optimal decisions. This is just one cause of Knowledge Traps but certainly one that would occur if people subscribe to the forceful illegitimate change methods that Flores advocates. The more Knowledge Traps that exist in an organization, the greater the likelihood of managerial failure. Knowledge Traps are the cholesterol of organizations; Connection is the statin drug that breaks up Knowledge Traps and restores the Knowledge Flow that is necessary to produce optimal decisions.

Legitimate change methods include not to bully people into change but informing them to understand why change must occur, what change is required for the sake of the organization and, as Edgar Schein has advocated, providing support with “good training, coaching, group support, feedback and positive incentives…”  We are human beings, not human doings. It matters how people treat one another.

Legitimate change methods are fair. They are right. When applied consistently, they produce change that lasts.

Note: The Fast Company article was brought to my attention by Alexander Kjerulf, The Chief Happiness Officer.  Here are links to Alexander Kjerulf’s perspective and those of Steve Roesler and Kareem Mayan.

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