INSPIRED BY J KOTTER, R KEGAN AND L LAHEY
If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, if you want to leverage a big opportunity, you will just change, won’t you? Chances are, you will not. Why would we rather muddle on in mediocrity, semi-satisfied, before we expose ourselves to the risk of change? I believe it’s more than just risk aversion.
Satisfaction at work is a sliding scale. For the purposes of simplicity, let’s say people fall into either of two camps: satisfied or dissatisfied. In an ideal world, the dissatisfied will either change it or leave it. And the satisfied may even come to love it, thus turning into engaged ones. What actually happens, most of the time, is that the dissatisfied ones neither change it nor leave it: they stay – but don’t love it. Recognising the need for change, but not acting upon it, they will exude a palpable disappointment. This corrupts the atmosphere for those who love it, but don’t end up staying.
This dynamic creates a downward spiral of brain drain and mounting cynicism, eventually leading towards organisational burn-out. It also saps organisational energy at a point when leaders most need it: in times of change. Remember the urgent need for action, the big opportunity? At low organisational energy levels, they remain untapped. Even the engaged ones, ideal change agents, will be stymied by the system’s inertia. And despite their willingness to change, their behaviour could be the opposite. When change doesn’t feel well in the gut, there are strong internal competing forces at work. Anxieties may simply be an upshot of the cynical climate, or maybe much older concerns. What is a leader left to do?
Trying to ride this skittish elephant, the leader not only has to show a clear path, but to harness the animal’s raw irrational power. This mammoth task becomes feasible, as two great emotional potentials exist in the organisation: turning the satisfied into engaged; and having the engaged inspire the dissatisfied. The tipping point is brought about with less effort if the leader focuses on the ends of the scale to build a guiding coalition of the willing, as John Kotter describes in Accelerate. The satisfied come to love it, becoming engaged; the engaged inspire the dissatisfied still capable of love; the dissatisfied help change it, becoming satisfied. This effectively reverses the downward-spiral dynamic into a flywheel of progress.
Nice theory, never saw it happen, even seen it fail? That’s why I emphasised inspiration to counter the systemic inertia and competing forces. Everybody, even a change agent, holds limiting beliefs about what will or will not work. Faced with a call for action, we may have very good reason to do just the opposite. And this is simply a benign reflex to protect our self-image from harm. Intriguingly, these hidden commitments are based upon assumptions and beliefs which are rarely, if ever, universally valid. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey demonstrated with their Immunity to Change process how you can overturn this immune system. Hence the true value of the engaged, in their role as change agents, is to embrace a willingness to test their own assumptions, and to inspire and facilitate the dissatisfied doing the same.
So, if you feel dissatisfied and you cannot love it, then leave it. But chances are, once you put limiting beliefs to the test, you can love it and become engaged. And if you are engaged, change agent, cura te ipsum, change thyself! Please overcome your own immunity to change first before inspiring others.