What Is the Role of Authority in the Change Process?: A Discussion from The Deep Change Field Guide

By Robert E. Quinn

This is the second of a series of three posts drawn from Chapter One of  The Deep Change Field Guide: A Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within In these discussions, we investigate both the barriers to deep change and the ways in (for a further introduction to this blog series, view the first installment). Here is what Chapter One suggests:

  • Change attempts often fail because of the assumptions we make.
  • We often find ourselves in situations that require us to adapt, but choose to distort reality and deny what the world is telling us.
  • To be excellent, we have to be at the edge, a place of uncertainty and learning.
  • When we are committed to a higher purpose, we move forward through the fear of conflict. As we do, we learn and we see in new ways

In the previous installment, we explored why considering the role of culture in the change process is critical. In the next discussion, we look at the role of authority.

Discussion 2: What Is the Role of Authority in the Change Process?

Deep change begins with a state of mind. Simply telling people about it does not instill in them what it is and why it works. Explanations just bounce off of their strongly held assumptions.

That’s why when I teach deep change, I no longer explain.  Instead, I put people through experiences that cause them to challenge their own assumptions.

For example, I sometimes use a simple role-play to show that resistance to the idea of deep change is not limited to corporate managers. Two volunteers play spouses who have just returned from their honeymoon. After breakfast, the “wife” leans back and lights up a cigarette. The “husband” is concerned about her smoking but has never raised the issue. He decides he can no longer suppress his concern. I ask him to begin a conversation with his beloved. The objective is to get her to quit.

The dynamics are predictable. The husband tells the wife that her smoking is a problem. She grows defensive and angry. He points out the scientific link between smoking and cancer. She rebuffs this argument. Then he suggests that their marriage may not survive if she continues to smoke. She usually agrees that the marriage might not survive. The intervention fails. This pattern is repeated nearly every time the simulation is run.

That role-play is an example of a very common kind of interaction. One person defines the other as having a problem, thus taking on a higher role in an assumed hierarchical system (when Person 1 is Person 2′s superior, as is often the case, that only adds to the imbalance). Person 1 communicates the problem and Person 2 resists. Person 1 now defines the other person as the problem, transforming him or her (or them) into an object that needs fixing. Person 1 takes the expert role and provides a rational argument as to why Person 2 must change. He or she continues to resist. Person 1 shifts to intimidation. Person 2 becomes more defensive, and sometimes more assertive. Person 1 might then turn to coercion. Like a criminal with a gun, he or she may ultimately get the desired outcome, but change made this way is unlikely to last, and coercion fatally wounds relationships over the long term.

The attempt to “engineer” other people’s behavior is one of the primary reasons why so many organizational change efforts fail. Most failed CEOs lose their jobs because they cannot get their employees to change in a way that improves performance. Despite their enormous authority, their careful plans and strategies, they are unable to lead people through the process of change. They are trapped in our normal assumptions of hierarchy, control, linearity, expertise, achievement, and recognition. Where do you stand when it comes to leading change? Consider these questions:

  •  When was the last time you tried to get someone else to change, at work or in your personal life? Was the intervention successful? Why or why not?
  • Think about a time when someone wanted you to make a change. How did the person talk to you about it? If he or she used rational arguments, how did that make you feel? Did those arguments persuade you to change? Why or why not?
  • If someone wanted you to make a change, how would you suggest he or she go about it? What kinds of things could that person do or say to persuade you to change?

In my next blog entry, we’ll explore another aspect of Deep Change Field Guide‘s Chapter One: “Learning Your Way to Your Goal.”