Culture and the Real Impact of Change Agents - Part 2

At the Berlin Change Days 2018

At the Berlin Change Days 2018

In the first part of this post, I reflected upon not-so-obvious obstacles to change.

Revisiting my own impact ahead of the Berlin Change Days, I got reminded that the capitalist order shapes our course of action and prevents real deep transformation. I observed how “they” are able to mimic change, using the words and the tools of transformation, but not the intent. Sometimes we “change agents” are “they”, acting as agents of conformity.

So, does it make sense to blame change resisters from opposing our efforts? How can we better identify what our own actions entail, in order to gain in efficiency and increase impact?

The limits of agency

Negative, controlling, oppressive behaviors are often merely symptoms of bad systems. They do not necessarily reflect the nature nor the intent of people. Employees of all levels operate as the system they’re in requires them to. Similarly, citizens’ behaviors are shaped by macro decisions, as reminded by Umair Haque in this staggering read about the effects of austerity.

Also, the system is independent from the individuals who compose it. A company culture is created by multiple conversations over time that form patterns of conversations… which become independent from the people having those conversations. After a while, when the culture is established, changing the people only gets limited to no effect on the company culture. Very often, top leaders act in the illusion that a new governance or a shift in leadership will impact the culture. They come in, they reshuffle teams and committees and department boundaries. But it doesn’t change anything.

Heroic change?

Is it always a good thing to challenge the status quo anyway? Another weird question, you may say. I’ve spent several good years already fighting the status quo and have found there lots to like and learn from. All of us change agents want to change the way things work. We find it positive and valuable to see ourselves as change agents. There’s a certain melodramatic appeal in framing reality as “Us vs The Bad Guys” (the Change Makers vs Resistance to Change). But I argue we can’t afford to picture ourselves as heroic change makers. This romanticism is an illusion in the world of business. It makes us lose our efficiency.

Change: what comes with ‘success” or ‘failure’

What happens then if our efforts are not successful? When fighting the status quo doesn’t work up to the level of their expectations, change agents can get really frustrated and withdraw, not wanting to put the effort deeply anymore. Lee Bryant said recently “I feel disappointing to see so many change agents lack the ambition to change the system and instead retreat into self-help”. Some precious competence and experience get diverted and lost to the cause of change.

In other cases, our efforts may seem successful… while actually serving a different objective. It happens when we get exploited. Picture this situation: you step up as a change agent, but your organization actually uses you because of something else (e.g. your network, your charisma, your leadership). Once, I got appointed to an internal “change agents’ network” which only objective was to broadcast the new business strategy of a certain business unit. This network was about supporting a player in a power game, not about change.

When our efforts really seem to work… then come another pitfall for change agents. Often, success is heterogeneous across the organization (“like a leopard skin” I heard once – pockets of success here and there amidst a largely unchanged culture). Focusing on the bright spots is tempting because that‘s where the energy. It can result though in a bubble that isolates the change agent and her fellow change makers from the rest of the organization. Their bubble is a wonderful place for deep purpose and transformation talk but it doesn’t trigger any systemic change.

Sometimes change works, but too late to protect the change agent. Given the fate of some known whistle blowers, who see their reputation attacked, their lives disrupted, and all sorts of hard economic consequences, it takes a lot of courage to raise a hand and say “something is wrong here, it must change”.

As change agents engaged in the transformation of powerful traditional systems, we know the risks it entails. Women fighting patriarchy do know it is risky business. Corporate activists trying to make their organization more diverse, more humane and more environment-friendly know they need to build their resilience. But what about the others they lead into activism – and into the possibility of not succeeding? Raising false hopes is to me the biggest pitfall because it is an ethical issue. Picture this: you spark a community of people who believe that change can happen… They expose themselves, they take risks, speak up and… the system strikes back. Game over. You move on to another job or another company, but they can’t, because they’re not as mobile. What happens to them?

We change agents have a responsibility that we ought to reflect upon seriously. It’s one thing to be fired up about changing the system, it’s another thing to bring people into the battle. Being honest about the risks and challenges, considering others as equals (not as “followers”) and acting accordingly are in my mind parts of the solution.

What do you think?

Read here part 3 (and final), where I state what I believe really matters regarding the impact change agents have. There are better questions to ask than “Did it work?”. You can leave questions and comment below this post!

Read again Part 1 here: Culture and the Real Impact of Change Agents - 1

Watch a video where I share the ups and downs of a change journey: BIF 2016 talk

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