Monday, August 10, 2015

Change or Cosmetics?

Meet Gordon Comstock, an erstwhile poet in George Orwell’s brilliant book, ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’. Gordon comes from a wealthy background but the family wealth has been dissipated. In an odd twist Gordon starts to believe that wealth interferes with creative talent. He has a job as a promising copywriter with the chance of success. Gordon gives this up and gets a job in a bookstore. This begins a gradual decline into poverty, eschewing friends, including his long-suffering girlfriend who he thinks only feel sorry for him. After hitting rock bottom and his girl friend getting pregnant he has to make a decision between his ideals, a rejection of wealth, and his responsibilities. Ditching his new book of poems down a drain he ends up writing advertising.

Orwell’s book is a social commentary. But, it is the psychological that is of interest here. Humans are full of contradictions, of Yin and Yang: opposites as Jung cogently pointed out. Each individual is capable of great good and great evil, love and hate, trust and betrayal, compassion and inhumanity, so many others. Most people don’t like to think this is true of themselves and only others. Each of us believes we are incapable of the negative, except for the odd minor infraction.

So, Gordon is a part of our psychological selves. He epitomizes what Jonas Salk in ‘The anatomy of reality’, says are the illusions that prevent us acting in our own best interests. These illusions are the ways in which we protect ourselves from the truth in order to prevent potentially overwhelming emotions as our sense of self, our ego, who we think we are, is threatened.

We have no evidence that Gordon is talented other than his claims. His first book, mice sits on the remainder shelf. He doesn’t believe it either, at a deeply unconscious level and his ideals serve a purpose. At a conscious level it is society, the system, his status in life, and finally, the act of living that denies him. It’s impossible to know what it is that has created his fear of success, of self-realisation. Like most of us our real motivations are a mystery.

One of the interesting problems that we see in organisations is applying simple solutions to complex problems. As Dave Snowden demonstrates with his Cynefin model, this doesn’t work, and we have many examples of all manner of disasters to show that this is true. We live in a world of rapid change and complex systems, and we can expect to be confronted with many more complex problems.

As my little anecdote about Gordon demonstrates, human behavior is similarly complex. Unfortunately many attempts at changing peoples’ behavior at work fail. One of the main controllable reasons for this is that the solutions we choose are simplistic. Performance management systems, most training programs, carrots and sticks, and telling people they need to change, frequently fall into this category. Trainers and consultants engage with employers in what I call the ‘change foxtrot’ in delivering these simple solutions.

Human behavior change is difficult at the best of times. Even in therapeutic situations, where people are in great psychological pain, it is not uncommon to find that they still cannot change, learn new habits, so ingrained are their behaviours and, like Gordon, they are so lacking in insight.

So, solutions need to be very targeted at specific behaviours, experiential with a significant emotional component, commitment-based, conversational rather than didactic, person and problem centred, longitudinal rather than one-shot, and involve organizational systems and commitment.

This latter point means making sure there is follow-up in the organization, and involvement of the line manager(s) using a system of continuous improvement. It takes around 3 months to change a habit. It isn’t going to happen overnight unless something really dramatic happens and that is not very often in my experience. What we call the ‘Halo Effect’ lasts for a few days but old habits die-hard and quickly take over.

It is not so hard to understand why the ‘change foxtrot’ is played out. It takes little effort and the boxes for responsible action can be ticked. I was once asked to run some stress management workshops for an organization that was having problems with stress related sick leave. The CEO and the Training Manager wanted 5 one-day stress workshops for their 100 or so staff. I asked to have a look around and the opportunity to talk to staff before committing and was granted the request. I told the managers that there was little chance of getting any real behavior change with one-off workshops. It was explained to them that the stress was a systems problem and that for the same cost I would be happy to work with staff as a group to create some work changes and reduce stress. Stress interventions were also included. The result: much too-hard. All the CEO wanted to do was tick the boxes for WorkCover and then it was up to staff to do the changing. Strangely enough, this was a human services organization running programs for the disabled. Go figure!

Needless to say this is one of the worst forms of Catch-22: offering amelioration when there is no chance of it occurring and then blame the victim. And not uncommonly used when things are not going well and we don’t want the finger pointed at ourselves.

So, interventions need to be sophisticated rather than simplistic with the aim of creating real change, rather than the cosmetic: a hallmark of a complex adaptive system, compared to maladaptive.