The psychology of organisational change

The psychology of organisational change


Twenty years ago John Kotter published his famous article on organisational change, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail (you can read it here). Kotter sets out the steps required for successful transformation in organisations, and explains the common pitfalls that cause 70% of change initiatives to fail. In summary, these causes of failed change according to Kotter:

  1. Lack of sense of urgency
  2. Lack of a powerful ‘guiding coalition’
  3. Lack of vision
  4. Undercommunication
  5. Not removing obstacles
  6. Lack of planned-for short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Not anchoring the change in the organisational culture

What underpins these causes is the psychology of change, and to be more precise: the barriers we humans throw up to sabotage our own initiatives. Few but the most disenchanted employees will openly admit to sabotaging change. Few of us are ready to commit career suicide in that way, so we do it under the cover of pretense, or even without knowing it ourselves. We therefore need to consider the psychology of change as fully as we can.

What is the psychology of organisational change?

Plenty of books have been written about this, and I will not attempt to write one here. Let me instead pull one of those books into Kotter’s theory and give some examples of what I’m talking about. Robert J Marshak is a distinguished organisational dynamics scholar with an impressive organisational consulting record. He wrote an excellent book on what we (choose not to) see during organisational change: Covert Processes at Work. Managing the Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change (2006). Marshak argues that rational argumentation about the change is easy by comparison, because

 considering the covert, unconscious reactions and dynamics is almost always considered off-limits in the workplace

– Robert J.Marshak, Covert Processes at Work, p.13

 Dimensions of organisational change

Marshak identifies one overt and five covert dimensions which impact on organisational change:

  • Reasons for change: the rational and analytical logic behind the change
  • Politics: people’s interests – individual and group
  • Inspirations: values-based and visionary aspirations
  • Emotions: affective and reactive feelings
  • Mindsets: guiding beliefs and assumptions
  • Psychodynamics: anxiety-based and unconscious defenses

No prizes for guessing which is which! Now, let’s see what Marshak’s dimensions have to say about Kotter’s common causes for failure.

Cause 1. Lack of sense of urgency

Sure, people can fail to be convinced by the arguments supporting the change, and counter them with ‘rational and analytical logic’ one by one. Often there are also other reasons why people fail to mobilise: they feel they lack opportunities to help shape the vision for example. A sense of ownership is required, and not being able to shape even a small part of the new world undermines the need for urgency.

Cause 2. Lack of a powerful ‘guiding coalition’

This one can be very tricky to navigate because of inevitably conflicting interests in organisations. Good and honest insight into the political interests at work is crucial to creating a strong coalition that unites people across divides, yet is often overlooked. Stakeholder analysisis of crucial importance here.

Cause 3: Lack of vision

A shared vision shapes beliefs and principles that guide people’s decisions, which becomes even more important in uncertain times. If the vision is not clear, or it is not clearly and consistently communicated to stakeholders, staff will have great difficultly translating that vision into the mindset required to make the change a success – and stick.

Cause 4: Undercommunication

Communication is often woefully underestimated by change makers. Yes, it is hard to imagine not knowing anything about it when you’re at the centre of it. Another reason is genuine anxiety around having to broach a difficult topic. Interests may clash and complicate the process, and also most people dread being the bearer of difficult news. The creeping sabotage of unconscious defenses in individuals is very often at the root of undercommunication during change.

Cause 5: Not removing obstacles

Here too we see psychodynamics such as avoidance and denial at work, along with a reluctance to challenge vested interests. It requires identifying and naming interests which so far have been operating under the radar and in fact have relied on not being called out for a long time.

Cause 6: Lack of planned-for short-term wins

Short-term wins are an important motivator and can boost confidence, which can ‘sell’ the change to people who are unconvinced or undecided. Reporting and celebrating interrim results is important as they reveal more about the vision for the future one step at a time.

Cause 7: Declaring victory too soon

This will be grist to the political mill of those opposed to the change and a perfect opportunity to reinforce their position. For others, such disappointment leads to anxiety and stress as more uncertainty and ambiguity ensues. It can be fatal to the aspirations of those who have been supportive yet anxious at the same time.

Cause 8: Not anchoring the change in the organisational culture

Organisations are made up of people who all move at their own speed. Adjusting to the new world takes some of us longer than others, and this will be felt in the time and effort it takes to see significant changes in organisational culture. Mindset, vision, aspiration, assumptions, beliefs and the stories we tell each other all influence organisational culture. These need time to evolve.

The way an organisation goes about designing and implementing change is indicative of its culture.  It is the organisations that know how to tend to the unseen dimensions of change that are likely to be the most successful.

As the ancient Chinese proverb goes:

Grass doesn’t grow by pulling the blades. It grows by tending to its roots.

Humour at work

Humour at work


When I opened The Guardian this morning, I was greeted by the headline: Jeremy Clarkson joins Guardian drive for fossil fuel divestment. Of course – it’s April 1st today! The hammed-up, amusing piece brought back to mind a conversation about humour I had a few days ago.

Earlier this week I had an impromptu coaching session with a sparky Australian whom I shall call Cath. While we were discussing relationships at work, and how these can be difficult to navigate, Cath asked me if this was something I saw more often in my coaching practice. I brought out one of my tools, Daniel Ofman’s Core Qualities Game, and her curiosity was instantly switched on.

Using the tool, Cath discovered that a core quality she possesses is enthusiasm. When this quality is pulled out of shape, for example when she is under pressure, it turns into unhelpful stubbornness, a feeling of being entrenched. When I asked her what she knows lifts her out of this and reconnects her with her enthusiasm – a positive quality – she answered

humour takes the sting out of my stubbornness, and allows me to take a perspective on the situation

She added that using humour well is a quality she really admired in others, and wishes she had more of herself.

Humour in organisations

Self-employed Cath confessed she had found it hard to be managed when she worked as part of a team. Many of the senior managers I work with as a coach report needing a wide repertoire of styles to lead people: at times being directive is counter productive and a light dusting of humour disarms tense arguments before they have properly developed. At the same time, those managers also take note of what is said and what remains unspoken, deploying humour to get the job done while they suspend judgement on what might be going on.

Conversely, staff also use humour to challenge upwards where they might find it difficult or inappropriate to do so more directly. This way, they draw attention to hierarchy in the organisation, and even momentarily bridge the distance in status between themselves and their more senior colleague to negotiate a better outcome. It might look like an expression of solidarity on the surface, humour is also deployed here to exercise power by those lower in the hierarchy.

This challenging use of humour in organisations, especially when bordering on the cynical can also be seen as a strategy for subversion. However, it is not the only explanation for the frequency of humour in organisations.

Shared language is a hotbed for humour

When working with teams, I will often use a working styles inventory or other profiling tool to help team members and their manager discover more about which approaches are effective and which are less helpful to individual team members. Very often such a session becomes cheerful in tone as people recognise behaviours and preferences in themselves and others.

The shared language that is created through team development activities such as above is essential to effective use of humour. A light-hearted reference to someone’s tendency to starting projects but abandoning them in favour of a new one when the situation demands seeing things through to the end can avert potential conflict by recognising the other’s preference, and inviting them to accept it cannot be satisfied fully this time. In this case humour is used as a solidarity device, expressing understanding for the other’s predicament of being invited to leave their comfort zone.

Humour: a 9-5 essential?

Many organisational scholars would argue humour at work is key to healthy organisations. Do you agree? How do you use humour at work? Is it a no-no for you, or the very lifeblood of what you do? Share some tales below, as I would love to hear them!