Introduction - Section 2 - Why Organisational Transition Efforts May Fail

Common Management Errors

(not necessarily in order of importance and with some suggestions for remedial strategies)


"...Generally social and behavioural causes frustrate change initiatives rather than technical problems ... Too much focus on the tip of the iceberg, on the measurable and observable, on the before and after, and not on the complex process of changing..."

Patrick Dawson, 2005

Accepted Change Mantra Under Threat

Why are there so many management models?

"...persistently, organisational reality doesn't fit the idealised reality that the models trying to provide certainty in a changing and ambiguous world, models entirely miss the point..."

Paul Culmsee as quoted by Theo Chapman 2016

Some examples: the idea that "six simple steps" or all the wrongs of the organisation can be put in 4 quadrants on a whiteboard is not appropriate.

Rather than concentrate on finding the right framework, it is better to help people handle the ambiguity of situations in constant flux and its messiness.

Unfortunately people in organisations tend to prefer models/frameworks they are familiar with, ie they are used as security rather than a means to solve a problem.

It is better to understand the behaviours that people revert to in the face of "ambiguity/uncertainty". People like to stay in their "zone of comfort", ie things they are familiar with

"...dealing with ambiguity can be learnt but can't be taught..."

Paul Cumsee as quoted by Theo Chapman 2016

Some warning signs that people are unable to handle ambiguity (called ambiguity intolerance), ie people rush to find solutions without considering all the details. The higher you go up the organisational tree, the more intolerant of ambiguity, ie

" have to learn to live with cognitive dissonance and tolerate it. You have to learn to live with contradictions. Sometimes you have to run with contradictions for a while, even though it feels wrong and you desperately want to manage it out and get back to a sense of order and control..."

Paul Cumsee as quoted by Theo Chapman 2016

Need to understand the situation and conditions, ie conditions trump situations or causes

Work conditions are more important than leadership, ie having

"...a really compelling purpose and providing adequate resources for staff to do their work will have better outcomes than for those organisations that don't have these things, regardless of the quality of leaders..."

Paul Cumsee 2016 as quoted by Theo Chapman 2016

People are looking for clear, simple solutions for these complex challenges and, most times, it is not possible.

With most change projects failing, some recent research is challenging some of the accepted mantras of change management. For example, concepts based on detachment from the past, stages and phases are being challenged as most people need to remember the past, build on it, learn from it, etc, not neglect or forget it.

"...staged theories have a certain seductive appeal - they bring a sense of conceptual order to a complex process and offer the emotional promised land of 'recovery' and 'closure'. However they are incapable of capturing the complexity, diversity and idiosynatic quality of the grieving experience. Staged models do not address the multiplicity of physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs experienced by the bereaved, their families and intimate networks..."

Downe-Wamboldt & Tamlyn as quoted by Ivana Crestani, 2016

The letting go of the past ignores the reality that staff are experiencing the  past, present and future, now. This "letting go" approach creates resistance.

The need "to let go of the past" and "move on" has been the basis for concepts like the

i) grief cycle (Kubler-Ross, 1969) with it stages, ie shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance & integration (see elsewhere for more detail) is being challenged. We need to build and reflect, ie learn from the past, not neglect or ignore it.
ii) managing transitions (William Bridges, 1991), ie moving zones from "ending via neutral to beginning" (
see elsewhere for more detail)
iii) SCARF (David Rock, 2008), ie status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness & fairness; it focuses on threats and rewards

NB the way people view change can depend on their attitude to change, ie is it an opportunity to look forward to or more a threat that needs to be carefully managed or is it inevitable?
- pushing the concept of "get on the bus/train, or get off" encourages group think rather than diversity, differing opinions, etc
- too often we focus on performance when it should be capability
- too often we focus on challenges, issues, etc rather than building on past successes, things we do well, etc
- are change models are too simplistic or too generalised given the complexity and situational elements of change (see more detail on the section covering 70+ change frameworks)
- most frameworks tend to be top-down, rational, linear and assume a single event, yet most organisations experience continuous multiple and frequent change
- the approach is too problem centric, ie a problem to fix rather than people/emotional/behavioural focused
- dominant focus on negative emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, resistance, etc that are considered to be dysfunctional; with limited research on positive emotions like hope, excitement, happiness, confidence, etc). Emotions are viewed more as a source of resistance than support.

5 levels of emotions (developed by Ashkansy and quoted by Ivana Crestani, 2016), ie

i) within person (emotional reactions, behaviours, etc)
ii) between persons (individual differences, emotional intelligence, etc)
iii) interpersonal (emotional labour, interpersonal relationships, etc)
iv) groups and teams (emotional contagion, leadership, group behaviour, etc)
v) organisation-wide (emotional culture & climate, leadership & organisation performance, etc)

"...employees experience a range of emotions in response to change; some feel calm, some feel excitement, while others feel anxious...... emotions become less intense over time, and a change from anticipatory emotions of hope and fear in the pre-merger stage, to realise emotions of happiness and sorrow post merger..."
Dasborough as quoted by Ivana Crestani, 2016

People are experiencing more change, eg from 2012 to 2015 both the pace and impact of change has increased by 71% and 65% respectively (Ivana Crestani, 2016).

Thus people are experiencing constant and multiple changes and need to be aware of the emotions that people are experiencing as they are in

- several stages of change at once
- accumulating emotional experiences during changes
- past emotional experiences will impact on subsequent change experiences
- how do emotions unfold as change unfold?

Different levels in the organisation have different experiences with change, eg

- senior levels (change is intentional, a conscious decision, designed to solve problems and provide new opportunities like promotional opportunities), ie

"...leaders don't see changes occurring simultaneously across the organisation because of a narrow focus and organisational silos..."
Ivana Crestani, 2016

- not understanding the silo approaches to change, eg project managers more aligned with technical matters and adopt a more clinical, 'tick the boxes', task-driven and 'let's move on' approach to change management; while HR have a better understanding of the psychology of change than the technical aspects, etc. There needs to be a holistic approach, ie balance between psychology and pragmatics, for effective change management.

- lower levels (change is imposed, it is out of one's control, it creates problems and disrupts routines)

"...employees experienced multiple changes simultaneously, but their ability to process these changes has an upper limit..."
Ivana Crestani, 2016

NB Change is about people and feelings.  Change and emotions are inseparable.

Engaging employees emotionally

This involves

- communicate continuity or connection via the past.  This will enhance the sense of belonging, provides meaning to what does not change, gives a sense of control and enhances confidence

- supportive leadership that ensures staff have the capability to perform, capacity to change, enabling employees to change helpfully and with resilience, and using respectful language

"...these participative approaches can contribute to creating a community spirit which is an important role for communications and organisational change to engender commitment, trust in the organisation, its identity and its leaders, and readiness to change..."

Elving as quoted by Ivana Crestani, 2016

More research is required around the emotional experience of change around the following elements

- emotional intelligence (recognising and managing our own and others' emotions)
- emotional contagion (negative and positive emotions spreading like viruses)
- emotional labour (displaying required emotions at work, eg putting on a brave face)
- emotional culture (what emotions are expressed, suppressed and valued, eg culture of fear or trust)

Concept of continuing bond

This challenges a staged approach to grief.

Decades of research suggests that people retain their bonds with departed love ones and this can be a positive experience; this applies at the individual and collective levels. Staff have families, friends (at work and outside), etc with whom they will discuss change and talk about the past in a healthy positive way to help build the future. Linked with this is the notion that all emotions are healthy whether positive, negative or mixed. Negative emotions are not necessarily destructive or dysfunctional; they can help give constructive meaning to the change process. The best way to deal with negative emotions, like anger, is to acknowledge the emotions behind these issues rather than suppressing emotions.

 - too much focus on competition. It is generally thought that competition (between individuals, teams, organisations, industries, etc) is good. This leads to the concepts like 'level playing field', meritocracy, consumerism, materialism, 'greed is good', adversarial focus ('win-lose' situation), etc. However, there is evidence that most existing societal groups are characterised by egalitarian collaboration, ie the fabric of groups held together more by cooperation and implicit peer pressure rather than explicit rules and regulations; usually involves a decentralisation of power and authority; endeavours to develop 'win-win' situations.


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