Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.
In this blog, I will highlight three different levels of change: 1) at the personal level where change is about changing oneself, 2) at the organizational level where we have a variety of tools to accomplish change as a group, and 3) at the societal level, where we urgently need to understand how to bring awareness to those occupying positions that we consider dangerous (illustrative events being the U.S. elections and the “Brexit” referendum) so that “they change”. More specifically, I will investigate behavioral change. Behavioral broadly relates to anything people do, or as Odgen Lindsley defined it so nicely with his “dead man test”: if a dead man can do it, it is not behavior.
My colleague Kathy Miller has pointed out in her most recent blog, which guides this conversation, that change has a lot to do with loving the mess we are in. She talks about why change is difficult in organizations and appeals to the need for courage. She points out that large scale change is disruptive and can negatively impact our sense of equilibrium. She suggests that building a high tolerance for ambiguity is important to be able to handle change. I agree entirely and want to dig deeper into this important subject, about which I am preparing to write a book.
Change at the personal level has much to do with what Eastern philosophers and self-help gurus call changing yourself. The mantra here is Mahatma Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world”. Gandhi was interested in changing the world and, much in line with Eastern philosophy, suggested that any change can only occur if it starts within oneself. My personal experience is that I can change myself all I want; the world is still going to pot. There’s got to be an additional lever for change or we will never get anywhere. What I am saying is: yes, let us find ways to change ourselves, to reflect on our blind spots, to train new behavior, absolutely. Yet, let us also recognize the limitation of this.
Change at the organizational level has been studied in great detail and there are a number of readily available “recipes” available for those who want to become change agents. Aubrey Daniels and Jon Bailey outline in their well-respected fifth edition of Performance Management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness the importance of providing feedback as an important lever for change. They call levers “reinforcers” suggesting that feedback can help behavior change in a positive direction, thus functioning as a reinforcer. Clearly, there are additional reinforcers besides feedback; for example, compensation is a well-recognized and often effective reinforcer. The advantage of a traditional organizational environment is that there is a power hierarchy that enables those in power to influence those with less power. It allows the use of carrots and sticks, and there is much literature about when and how to use both of these to create change. There is less discussion about creating change in newer and more modern organizational environments, such as a Holacracy, which I am experiencing within my own organization. If power is indeed distributed and people self-organize, sticks and carrots not only lose their power, they simply don’t have a place anymore. I am curious to find out more about how to create change in such new settings.
Change at the societal level implies yet a different spectrum of methods and approaches. Here we are more directly trying to understand how we can change others. And this without the convenient levers we have available when we have some power or pressure points on those we want to change. I am really intrigued by this. The recent climate change debate in the U.S. has shown that simply throwing more information at those so-called climate change deniers does not change anything. The most ardent deniers are as informed as the most ardent supporters. They simply access different information and use information sources they trust to reinforce their beliefs. So how do we “educate” those with beliefs we consider dangerous for our democracy and well-being? In the current electoral environment, I trust this is a worthy and urgent question. Timothy Wilson (author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change) concludes that in order to change the behavior of others, we must change their self-perception; and in order to change self-perception we must change how they act. He uses the example of a study that attempted to reduce teen pregnancy by involving young girls in community activities, thus enabling them to feel more engaged and responsible than before, and consequently altering their self-perception. And indeed, not only did teen pregnancies drop, but participants’ school grades also improved. What does this mean for creating other types of societal change? I believe the resulting question is: how can we create experiences and activities that will change the self-perception of those feeling anger and disappointment with the current establishment as a result of their own reality. How does one do that? I don’t have the answer yet but, more importantly, I have the feeling that I might have just found the right question!
I welcome comments, remarks and suggestions, and look forward to an active and engaged discussion on this topic, which will be the focus of my energy in the coming months.
Dr. Katrin Muff is Dean at Business School Lausanne (BSL), Director of the innovative Sustainable Business DBA program. She writes a weekly blog and is actively engaged in transforming business education to serve the world (project 50+20).