No.3 – “Change Matters”

This month, I’d like to offer some ‘musings’ on the subject of change. A huge topic I know and in this instance I’m particularly focussing on situations where you want to make (or influence) change yourself, in any context, rather than those which are ‘imposed’ on you.

You may be familiar with the work of David McClelland’s team at Harvard, who some years ago, summarised the requirements for any significant change to be lasting and effective as follows:

In order for change to be sustainable people must…

  • be willing to change (if they’re not it’s a motivation issue)
  • be able to change (if they’re not it’s a training/competency issue)
  • not be prevented from changing (if they are, it’s a ‘systemic’ issue)

In this edition of ‘Top Tips’ it’s the last of these three that I’d like to explore. How exactly can ‘the system’ prevent change – and what does that mean anyway? Consider the presupposition…

“Any system or relationship is exquisitely designed to deliver precisely the result it does”.  On the face of it that statement seems to defy logic – how can it be true, particularly in situations where the result you are getting is not the one you want? Why would everyone involved in a negative situation be onspiring to keep it exactly the way it is, rather than change what they’re doing to get the result they say they want?

Consider the following scenario…

A manager is concerned by constant arguments and tensions between two members of his team, who always seem to rub each other the wrong way. It’s also beginning to affect the other members of the group who ‘tip-toe’ around them in an attempt to keep the peace! Individually both of them have a good relationship with the manager (and other colleagues). The Manager has made several attempts to mediate between the two – with no success. Both say they are unhappy with the situation and would like it to improve, but despite the direct interventions of the manager and the indirect efforts of other team members, nothing changes. 

Therefore, if we apply the above presupposition to this situation, it would suggest that each of the participants in this system is conspiring (consciously or not) to keep the current position exactly the way it is.

Yet that seems to make no sense – why would they want to perpetuate something that causes frustration, tension and stress? And yet nothing changes – despite everyone saying they want things to be different. Therefore another option could be that they are all getting something out of keeping it the way it is, at a much deeper level, rather than making the changes they say they want. In other words, the system itself is perpetuating the situation.

So, before anything can move forward it would be necessary to understand the kind of deeper needs and drivers that are being satisfied by the current behaviour, as this will have to be maintained in the new desired behaviour, or no change will happen.

Obviously it’s speculation, but just suppose the following is true…

For the Manager – Despite the tensions in his team, they are still meeting all their objectives and are seen as a high performing department by the rest of the organisation. Therefore he feels proud of the fact that he can achieve the desired results, despite the interpersonal challenges the team is experiencing, as it sets him apart from his peers and gets him noticed by the Board.  For the two people in conflict – They get attention and reassurance both from their manager and other members of the team. The manager is not naturally someone who gives much feedback on good performance, but throughout this scenario he has been much more forthcoming in giving both parties support and encouragement on the work they are doing.

Unless those needs are acknowledged, and met, in any future scenario, the ‘system’ will push back at any attempt to change the status quo. The key will be to find a way to satisfy the deeper needs and motivations of all parties, but with new behaviours, rather than a continuation of the existing ones.  Only then will a lasting change occur which creates a new ‘system’ designed to produce a different result.

So, what might resolve our example?

What if they were introduced to this presupposition and then asked to explain (to each other) how, despite saying they wish to resolve the issue, they do not? This would be best done with some humour and it almost becomes a double-bind in the sense that if they say they don’t know, they are tacitly accepting some responsibility for it staying static. If they deny it then you can reasonably say that they are manifesting the behaviour! The resulting mind-set change should be sufficient to get some movement into the situation.

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