Why Organizational Change Is Difficult

Because people are involved. Thanks for reading!

Seriously, that is my answer, but it is not terribly constructive because we often do not want the answer to why organizational change is difficult. We want to know how to make organizational change come about, and we ask why organizational change is difficult when we are exasperated by the effort. In order to make organizational change come about, we need to understand how people operate.

The Different Selves

People are driven by the interplay of their affective, behavioral (psychomotor) and cognitive selves. Nothing new here other than to explain my use of “behavioral” in place of “psychomotor.” I do this because both words can be about what a person does in a situation, and by using “behavioral” I can easily consider the whole being by remembering my ABCs: A(ffective), B(ehavioral), C(ognitive).

Great. We are back in kindergarten with the ABCs. Actually, this is very useful if we think about how we develop as people. Children often act out (behavioral) as a result of their feelings (affective). Rarely do we have a child thinking (cognitive) through a situation before responding. This is expected, and is part of normal child development. Ask any parent who teaches her or his child how to behave. As a child, I could throw a tantrum like nobody’s business. This was not very useful socially, so my parents worked with me to overcome this. But did I overcome this? Perhaps I learned how to intervene or control my inclinations, but did they go away? I think not. If I get very frustrated in a situation, I feel like throwing something. I have to intervene cognitively or the affective self will prevail.

This last thought is important to me. I do not think we get rid of our affective core. The core may change over time, but our core is there reacting on a moment by moment basis. Have you ever had a reaction as an adult that was along the lines of “that’s just stupid!” If you have, did you really investigate what the situation was before deciding it was “stupid?” Probably not. We are not wired this way. We often act out of our affective selves instead of our cognitive selves. This is not good or bad. It just is.

A way I like to remember this is a scene from the 2002 movie, Two Weeks Notice with Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant:

Lucy (to George): I think you’re the most selfish human being on the planet.

George: Well that’s just silly. Have you met everybody on the planet?

Even if Lucy had said “I think you’re the most selfish person I have met” I would find it hard to believe she actually went through the list of people she had met and made a ranking resulting in George being at the top of the list before she made the comment. We often act from our affective selves first.

How Can We Picture This?

In their 2010 book, Switch, the Heath brothers have a great metaphor for how our affective, behavioral and cognitive selves work. They use the image of a rider on an elephant travelling along a path. The rider (cognitive) can direct the elephant (affective) along a path (behavioral), but only for so long because directing an elephant takes a lot of work. Eventually, the rider will tire, and the elephant will choose its path. There is more to their metaphor, and I highly recommend this book, but for my purposes this explanation will do.

Taking their metaphor further, oftentimes the rider is not paying attention. The elephant reacts to a situation without input from the rider (e.g., that’s just stupid!). This happens more often than you think because our thinking (rider, cognitive) is not paying attention which is why it happens more often than you think. Get it? We do not think first much of the time. We are (elephant, affective) first. Then maybe we think second. Again, this is not good or bad. It just is.

In John Kotter’s 1996 book, Leading Change, Kotter describes an 8 step process for organizational change that is quite good. If you have not read this book, I recommend reading it before reading Switch as it provides a good basis. To save you some time memorizing the 8 steps, I will give you a hint: memorize step 1 (establishing a sense of urgency) because if you do not have this step accomplished, the rest do not matter. If you successfully establish a sense of urgency, then you can look up the others. Books are great that way.

So why is a sense of urgency so important? Because it is the sense of urgency not the thought of urgency. We are back to the elephant. If the elephant does not sense (affective) a need to change, then no amount of input from the rider will make a difference over the long term. We are still children in kindergarten in this respect. We operate from feelings first. If our adult side shows up, we can then move to thought. A professor recently remarked, “I do not need to read research to know what I want.” So true. Why use the cognitive self if the affective self is ready to go?

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön talk about “mental maps” that guide people’s actions in their 1974 book, Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. They contend these maps guide people’s actions instead of what they espouse. The saying “do as I say, not as I do” gets at their assertion. The only change I make to this is the understanding that the “mental maps” are so entrenched that they happen out of the affective self rather than the cognitive self. They are more feeling maps than mental maps. Whether they are feeling maps or mental maps, they are indicative of an elephant in control.

Because people act primarily from their affective selves, an argument for change needs to be directed at their affective selves before addressing their cognitive selves. Often, we expect that a logically constructed argument should be enough, but it is not. If we do not connect to how they feel, then we cannot get to how they think. Ultimately, this means we cannot get them to change how they behave.

Why Is Organizational Change Difficult?

Organizational change is difficult because there are a lot of elephants in the room, and we need to address the elephants in the room in order to make organizational change come about. Find out what drives their affective selves about the issue you want to change. For example, if you want your organization to move more quickly, find out why they feel comfortable with the current pace. You need to get a critical mass to feel the current pace is too slow before the organization will change. If you cannot find a way to get a critical mass to feel the current pace is too slow, then no amount of change effort will succeed over the long term.