Thursday, December 6, 2012

Oversimplifying Change Management

In the world, we see many natural dualities:  dark versus light, low versus high, hot versus cold, life versus death, and so on.  Traditional wedding vows describe life experiences as a twofold experience:  good times and bad, sickness and health, sorrow and joy, etc.  Even computers work in a binary fashion, interpreting bits of data as 0’s or 1’s.

Leaders, change practitioners and researchers often view organizational change through a dual lens:  people either support or resist the change.  This limited view of change management assures failure during the initial planning process. 

The truth is individuals do sometimes support organizational change, and they often resist organizational change.  Researchers are beginning to catch up with what some practitioners have known for years.  For the past decade, organizational change researchers have argued that individual responses are more complicated than a binary response (Piderit, 2000; Rafferty, Jimmieson, & Armenakis, 2012).

Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management, makes a pretty convincing argument that choosing between polar opposites is as futile as choosing between breathing in or breathing out.  Choosing one over the other is not appropriate, let alone possible.  The following adaptation illustrates the point: change management is not a dichotomy.

Follow the numbers to make sense of this theory:
  1. An organization experiences stagnation and apathy, so leaders decide to change (moving from the lower right quadrant to the upper left quadrant).
  2. At first, the idea of change seems great with new energy and some progress.  However, the change begins to lose momentum.  People are frustrated.  Managers dislike inconsistency. 
  3. Because of these change problems, leaders decide to stabilize.  The stability is reassuring for workers and managers at first.
  4. Once stability outlives its expiration date, stagnation and apathy reappear. 
And the cycle continues …

This post is another lesson in change management failure:  If you do not change the way you think about change management, success will elude you.

While many people crave simplicity and certainty, use polarity management as a concept to break the pattern of the way your organization changes.  If you would like more details on the application of polarity management to organizational change, check out Robert Jacob’s recent presentation in South Africa.

Johnson, B. (1992). Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems.  Amherst, MA:  HRD Press.

Piderit, S. K. (2000). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence:
A multidimensional view of attitude toward an organizational change.
Academy of Management Review, 25, 783–794.

Rafferty, A. E., Jimmieson, N. L., & Armenakis, A. A. (2012). Change readiness: A multilevel review. Journal of Management, [On-line], doi: 10.1177/0149206312457417


  1. If we add Reward and Threat to Dr. Johnson's model, the Johari window enables us to better understand and those manage, the dynamics of change.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The $100,000 question is where to add reward and threat into the model? The leaders invested in the status quo will threaten change within their domain. Those
      leaders supporting the change will reward the change and threaten the status quo as being futile. This is where Bob Marshak and his views on hidden dynamics come in handy.

      I've always thought of the Joe-Harry window as a great add-on model that could enhance any type of management thinking. I was once given a great debrief as I was approaching the birth of my daughter 10 years ago. My cousin asked me how much did I think my life would change. I said something to the effect of "a little."

      His response was one for the ages: "you think you know, but you just don't know."

      The would be the message to get the leaders to soften up or open up to the Joe-Harry piece. It can be great when people are not in full politics mode.


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