The Big Picture — Organizational Change From the Inside

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Into the Drink — Lochsa River, 2012, Photo Credit Lochsa Photography

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about relating my developed Theory of Empathetic Evolution on to actual change maps inside organizations. How do we know change can happen, and how do we know it will stick?  Many organizations will tell you stories about becoming 6 Sigma organizations, or TQM, and how it didn’t change anything — it just gave a new oppressive tool to already oppressive management.

In that spirit, can we create guidelines from our Theory of Empathetic Evolution that can help us in our change processes?  Here are a few:

  1.  The ideal pathway for change is always to evolve your people first, and then let emergent solutions come from the people themselves.

This principle is easier said than done, especially down in the lower v-Memes (Tribal/Authoritarian space.)  The reason this is so hard is because the way these lower v-Memes handle conflict usually involves decapitation!  It’s very hard to get managers who are receiving status-based (and often monetary!) benefits to change a system that they perceive diminishes their status. And since such ‘power and control’ systems have had little interest in actually increasing performance, they usually have cultural sidebars around manners or etiquette that prevent real change management discussions from happening.  Real change and growth is often an uncomfortable process, and there are people involved who have staked their ‘face’ on doing things incompetently.

The reality is, though, that higher evolved practices require changes in the organizational chart, agency, and importantly, timing and synchronicity.  You can’t run a Lean/Agile organization where the boss dictates all aspects of the timeline.  Successful Lean/Agile or higher modes depend on goal-oriented behavior in a relationally rich environment.

Team building and kaizen events can help.  Letting leadership know that this is a priority and starting a conscious process of understanding information flow in your organization is also key.  Ideas are welcome here — don’t be afraid to comment!

2.  There’s nothing to say that you can’t evolve the people and the organization at the same time.  But you have to consciously emphasize empathetic practice.

I’ve discussed empathetic ladders before on this blog.  The idea is straightforward.  You start by giving a command/idea, or structuring an environment at a lower empathetic level, that creates opportunities for development of an individual to a higher level of empathy.  One of the techniques I use with my 22 year old design students, who (trust me!) are extremely egocentric, is I order the use of empathetic tools.  Active listening, pairing on tasks, realistic timeline reviews and customer visits with scripted engineering mentor partners (all the clients the kids work with are given coaching on how they’re not supposed to tell the students any answers they come up with, for example) are all authority (me!) -ordered work practice at the beginning of my class.  There’s no allowance of much hierarchy, either — everyone working on the project is an engineer, and specialization is allowed to develop naturally.

I’m also acutely aware that my class is a rarefied environment.  As a professor with a profound legacy, students come into my class knowing what to expect.  They’re mostly mid-20s in age, and so neuroplasticity is high.  I’ve repeated the change process many times, to the point I suffer reverse Dunning-Kruger effects (not knowing exactly what I do that creates the change process.)

Still, you, as a manager have to start somewhere.  Giving training in empathetic modes, while offering experiences where they will be utilized, follows the Neurobiology of Education format we laid out earlier.  Explicit knowledge => Autobiographical Understanding, a la Daniel Siegel, is the pathway.

3.  Sometimes, you have to just fire one of your anti-empathetic managers to start the process.

There’s not an organization in existence today that doesn’t have empathy-disordered people working in it.  They’re just too prevalent.  The NIH says something like 12-14% of the population is a High Conflict Personality, so that means that the odds of your company escaping such behavior, once your numbers are greater than 20, fall dramatically.

And you can’t fire all the relational disruptors all at once. Often, if such people have been running the show for a long time, you’ll have no bench.  Fire one, and who will you replace that person with?  And like it or not, stable disruptors can have administrative skills you need.  They know the scaffolding.

At the same time the situation may seem hopeless, understanding empathetic evolution can give pathways toward success.  If the bottom level of the empathy pyramid, Mirroring Behavior, is all you have, then that’s what you have to use. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” said a paraphrased Gandhi. It strikes at the core.  Be a Servant Leader 2.0.  At the same time, whacking one of your most deviant and anti-empathetic managers also sends a message out through the anti-empathetic network.  Once you boot that bunch down to the Survival v-Meme, they’ll snap to attention pretty quickly.

How do you pick?  Look for environments inside your organization where fragmentation and relational disruption are most intense. The person at the top, or one of their primary influencers/controllers, should be your target.

A good friend of mine, Mike Johnson, called this ‘freeing the hostages.’  You don’t really know how much creativity you have at your fingertips until you figure out who the hostage taker is and remove them from your organization.  But once that person is removed, you can start to find out.  And the other hostage takers will take note.

4.  For a high performance organization, agency has to be consciously developed.

When you’ve got an underperforming organization that’s made the classic Authoritarian v-Meme deal — “Employees do what the boss says to do in trade for passivity and lack of responsibility” — you have to ease off the Authority as part of an explicit plan.

Here’s an example. Often, the people below the bosses will have lots of great ideas how to improve their work environments.  But instead of just installing a suggestion box, demand that your managers produce a certain number of organizational change directives that come from the bottom, with ways of measuring their success, and a plan for modification if things don’t reach the goals initially set. Exploration encouraged, and no punishment allowed.  Have people discuss amongst themselves, and develop a real implementation plan.  Grade high for positive motivation, low for penalties inside any plan.  At the start, there will always be a subset of employees who have been punished that will attempt to establish another In-group/Out-group dynamic, where they get to punish the bosses for past failures.  Don’t let it happen.

People working in their jobs for a long time will know what works, and what doesn’t, about the tasks they do. Require that they address their own boredom, and their own fulfillment — that injects their value of meaning in their life.  Ask them how the relational web will look after they fix the problems they perceive.  Will they like the people they work with more?  Will they be less fearful?

That starts the real process of empathetic evolution — giving action that leads to meaning and happiness to duplex, empathetic communication in the workplace.

5.  Conflict arising from v-Meme separation, between the v-Meme intent of the practice, and the empathetic evolution/v-Meme level of the people, has to be addressed.

On this blog, I’ve written a whole section on v-Meme conflict, that shows how the different value sets will have conflicts on solutions. I’m not going to re-write all that here.  But here’s the basics.  Authoritarians and Communitarians, for example, are going to see things differently. Or Legalists and Performance-based Thinkers.  A great example can be taken from my lab.

It won’t surprise you (I hope!) to find I keep a pretty open-door lab policy. I want all the different disciplines to mix and mingle, and if they bring their liberal arts boyfriend/girlfriend along to get some free printing, all the better.  I think most college students are fine people, and the interaction that may happen over a pizza is the way people grow and change. Over the years, I’ve had virtually nothing stolen from my facility, which is largely open 24/7.  Three graphics cards, a mouse, a laptop camera, that’s about it.  Students watch out for their resources — since it’s a shared responsibility space, they are the best theft-prevention system I could hope for.

Needless to say, the Authoritarians/Legalists don’t like this. No control over who goes in and out?  Aren’t resources for our own students?  And so on.  Conflict could easily arise between myself and those parties, and our goals of relational development are profoundly at loggerheads.  Or really — the Authoritarians can’t understand what I’m really trying to do.  I did give in and allow one ID card reader installation.  But I still maintain my policy.

As it is with people, so is it with preferred practice and its intended v-Meme levels.  If you have an Authoritarian organization, with Performance-based (or intended) Lean/Agile practice, things aren’t going to go very well.  Allowing people inside the process to decide scrums, sprints, and whatnot goes against the ‘Father knows best’ mentality. Likewise, we all know how Authoritarians can subvert Communitarian practice — everyone gets their say at a meeting, but nothing fundamentally changes except what the boss wants.  On and on.

How do we tell if our practice is following what we preach, as well as our social organization?  It gets back to core understanding of information flow inside our systems.  Are people given strategies that match information requirements? Do titles dictate treatment in all venues?  Are all important timescales external, yet people are given practice that requires agency?  Understanding this big question is the real insight into mismatch — and the key to understanding large-scale change.

There’s more — I’d ask my readers to leave their ideas below.

Shout-out:  To my friend, counselor and mentor, Steve Kallick, who taught me about #3.  Steve is the ‘winningest’ wilderness advocate in Western history, having been responsible for facilitating the set aside  of more protected areas than any human.  I asked him what to do, one time, about assholes in an organization.  His answer was simple, for a fundamentally Communitarian guy.  “I don’t put up with that shit.”

3 thoughts on “The Big Picture — Organizational Change From the Inside

  1. Related to item 2 — information that is gathered by the organization must be freely accessible to the organization, else the power/knowledge/value of the information creates a meme-imbalance. Usually an authoritarian privy to the info will, conciously or not, use it to exploit and control. Classic example is the street corner surveillance cameras in the UK. Just remember, information is just information, and will be interpreted differently based on meme-sets. But to maximize empathy, information MUST be free!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Change, including empathetic change, takes resources (information, energy, time, space, etc). But the pitfall of faux-performance v-Meme organizations is to push-push-push at the expense of empathy. Soon they are so over-extended that the key leaders don’t have the time or money to sit back, stare at the wheat-fields so-to-speak, and come about empathetic evolution in a smooth, comfortable progression. The ship is sinking! We need to act fast! This connects items 2 and 3 above. This all but necessitates very disruptive phase-changes — for better or worse. When you have disruptive phase-changes, the end result looks totally different, and functions totally different than what you started with. The good news is, we know what happened historically, so we have an idea that more empathetic systems look totally differently than what came before.

    Liked by 1 person

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