The Hidden Forces which Stop Change from Really Sticking

Surrounded by organisations experiencing mergers, significant change programmes, as well as rapid growth and expansion, I have been reminded of just what it takes to manoeuvre through these scenarios successfully. And, by successfully, I mean when the change which takes place is durable.

On so many occasions, organisations plan intricate, clever, even remarkable schemes to effect change, growth and innovation. The one thing that, almost universally, is forgotten is that these plans are left to thrive or die in a dominant organizational culture. It’s no different to any other environment where you want something to take root and grow. You may buy the most beautiful plant, tend to it regularly and feed it the most expensive of food, but it will still die if you leave it in an environment where weeds entangle its roots and the frost bites at its leaves.

Dominant culture and the behaviours which drive it are often the foundation for the hidden, complex, forces which are powerful enough to see poor initiatives across the line and single-handedly snuff out the most sophisticated.

So how might leaders, organizational development practitioners and change management professionals address such an unquantifiable and seemingly amorphous issue which threatens to de-rail the most sophisticated of plans?

Well, I’d suggest they pay close attention to the behavioural preferences which govern their organisation. Invisible to the untrained eye, these are the forces which really determine organizational effectiveness.

Not so long ago I was working in a large, hierarchical organization where women were in a significant minority. Whilst this story is not about gender difference per se, it happens that the behavioural preferences of the majority of men in the organization varied substantially from the majority of women.

I had been asked if I was willing to work with a Professional Women’s Support Association, because they had set their sights on improving their ability to have skilful conversation. My work with them had revolved around teaching the skills of effective dialogue.

Their budget had been small and so the amount of input they could afford was limited, but what they did with that input was truly extraordinary. With just a little extra support they completely transformed. Without exception, they thrived and grew in front of me. By the time our work was drawing to a close, more than half of the women had applied for promotions they would never previously have considered and they were universally successful.

It was wonderful to watch them create an environment in which they openly explored issues, thought together and, with ease, candidly expressed emotion. But throughout that time I was acutely aware that only one part of the system was in the room. As we neared our last session, I made the suggestion that we invite some of the male members of the organisation to be involved in this new way of working and to understand and jointly work with some of the issues facing the women in this environment – one which all of them were a part of. There was an immediate excitement about the prospect of doing so and great hope was pinned on this day where the two parts of the system would come together.

What followed was a shuddering reality check of what happens when the dominant part of a system senses a threat to the status quo. Men of all backgrounds and positions joined the women, eager to be involved in working with them on the issues which mattered to them most. The women had anticipated an environment like that which they normally experienced in this setting – one where there would be an opportunity to explore, discover and better understand the issues before moving towards the co-generation of potential solutions. The men, on the other hand, listened to the ‘problems’ and immediately suggested a solution to each. There was no exploration, no joint working, just an imposition of a direction which would ‘fix’ the difficulty followed by a strong desire to move on.

There was no right or wrong approach here. Instead, there were two very different dominant behavioural preferences showing up in each group. I watched as the confident, articulate, creative women I had seen grow over the preceding months rapidly withdrew. Their body language conveyed a level of anxiety that I had never seen in them and, in many cases, they became silent. The men, in turn, became perplexed. Believing they had ‘solved’ the problems, they began to express annoyance with the process. Within the frame through which they viewed their working world, they had successfully dealt with the task so the women’s reaction was confusing.

As uncomfortable as this was for the women, I could see that the men were also outside of their comfort zone. This way of working challenged the accepted behavioural norms and destabilized the status quo that they thrived within. They overcame that challenge by re-asserting the dominant way of working with such force that it steamrolled straight through the women’s model which valued enquiry and exploration.

It was sad and yet fascinating to see that, as the defense of the status quo amplified, some of the women joined the men in trashing the process. They had each expressed such hope for this event which they had invited colleagues to and helped to design, yet in the face of a powerful challenge from the dominant culture, it became safer to collude with the majority.

It is these hidden forces which direct coaches and leaders to the real ‘work to do’ if they are ever to stand a chance of supporting successful, durable change within organizations. Because, for as long as there is a dominant way of working which seeks to protect the status quo it will inevitably show up as a fierce intolerance for difference which is guaranteed to make the experience of working in any organization extremely powerful for some at a disproportionate expense to others. Smart leaders create an environment of true tolerance for different behavioural preferences within which the most well-rounded change initiatives can be concieved, alongside working to identify and shift the dysfunctional, stuck patterns of behavior which threaten their ability to take root.