Change within organisations always and everywhere involves loss. Sometimes the loss is small, as when the boss asks us to give up a familiar routine or move to a distant corner of the building. Sometimes it is of existential proportions, as when a new assignment challenges us to reconsider our values, status and career. Either way, distress is the inevitable result.
While most of us also relish a new challenge, managers trying to implement change need to remember that the emotional balance sheet registers both credits and debits. By all means, focus on the potential benefits of a new plan or process but recognise and acknowledge the losses, too. It is not a question of being soft.
It is a question of being effective.
The plight of Larry Summers, recently resigned as president of Harvard University, is a case in point. While most commentators chose to portray entrenched, self-interested academics as the villains of the piece, a more nuanced view is that Mr Summers' brusque manner made him an unlikely agent of change. Intellect and experience may have given him a clear view of the reforms required for Harvard to meet the educational challenges of tomorrow but he singularly failed to empathise with those who felt threatened by change.
The outcome might have been different had Mr Summers received counsel from Ron Heifetz, leadership guru at Harvard's own Kennedy School of Government. In Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994) and Leadership On The Line (2002), Prof Heifetz distinguishes between "technical change", in which an organisation deals with problems using existing skills and knowledge, and "adaptive change", which requires people to shift their attitudes, habits or expectations. Steering organisations through adaptive change, he argues, is the real work of leadership.
The first requirement is for a leader to recognise that adaptive work is required and understand the values and issues at stake. He must also recognise that adaptive change inevitably causes distress by requiring people to give things up. Adaptive work must therefore be paced appropriately: there is only so much distress that an organisation can take before it becomes dysfunctional.
All the while, the leader must make sure that the internal debate remains focused on the reasons and necessity of change. This is not easy. Distressed organisations look for scapegoats within, enemies without, and slip easily into denial. They will do anything, in fact, to avoid the hard graft of adaptation.
Applying this framework to L'affair Summers raises enough questions for a semester of case studies. Was the president even aware of the adaptive nature of the change he was asking of Harvard's faculty? Did he really understand the values and issues at stake? Did he realise that loss and distress would result? Could he have prevented the debate from drifting towards secondary issues of race, gender and management style?
Whatever the answers, the results were (in professional terms) fatal. As Prof Heifetz and Marty Linsky, his co-author, warned in Leadership On The Line: "People push back when you disturb the personal and institution equilibrium they know. And people resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game: pushed aside, undermined, or eliminated."
The notion that organisations resist change is hardly new, of course. In the 1940s, Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of organisational psychology, explored how group attitudes could be unfrozen, changed and refrozen in a "three step" process of planned change. Since the early 1960s, Chris Argyris, veteran professor at the Harvard Business School, has been trying to understand -- and find ways to overcome -- the subconscious "defensive routines" people use to avoid changes construed as threatening or embarrassing.
In the 1980s, Warren Bennis, a former university president, frequent visitor to Harvard and sagacious writer on leadership, warned of the "the unconscious conspiracy" waged by organisations against their leaders.
Decade by decade, however, the challenge has become more urgent. Organisations (and, perhaps, societies) need to renew themselves more quickly than ever in order to survive, let alone thrive. Yet homo sapiens, for all their reputation for adaptability, seem predisposed to resist change in an organisational context -- and can be devilishly smart about their methods of resistance.
Does the answer lie with the development of more effective and savvy leaders? Profs Bennis and Heifetz might say so. Or does each of us need to be confronted with our subconscious fears via Argyris-style group therapy? Or is it possible, to put organisational policies and processes in place that substantially overcome our aversion and create organisations more adept at renewal?
These are surely some of the most pressing questions in management. In a world dominated by organisations -- not only companies but also schools, government agencies, charities and, yes, Ivy League universities -- they are also questions of universal concern.
My personal contribution to the whirligig: by the time you read these words I will have left the Financial Times to join a management consulting firm that, in the interests of propriety, shall remain nameless. This column is therefore my last. Suffice to say that even change of a voluntary nature can be accompanied by a tremendous sense of loss.