A spring morning in Washington. Walking home from dropping my son at preschool—just two blocks from home—and it started to storm. Scattered clouds and high winds conspired to violently burst into rain and thunder. Waterfall-like sheets poured and shuddering booms echoed. Naturally, I scurried under a broad, leafy tree for protection. Five minutes later the storm passed, the sky cleared, and a wetted sun appeared.
Lingering under the tree, the drops off the leaves quickly soaked my clothes. I was almost as wet as if standing direct in the downpour. The tree was shelter one minute, the next it was not.
It then struck me that being under the tree is not necessarily the best place to be once the storm subsides. You can still get wet.
Organizational change can be a storm. It can be fast, furious, and fearful. If introduced too swiftly, absent expressed vision and bereft of clear path, we feel intimated and run for cover. Because organizations are inherently socio polis (i.e., public gatherings), our impulses—where we duck—have critical consequences.
The great organizational theorist Ed Schein was a US Army psychologist during the Korean War. His job was to help prisoners of war and to understand their captivity experiences. Patterns emerged. A small percentage actively resisted the change, and was punished with solitary confinement, banished from contact with fellow humans. The largest group, by far, were passive bystanders; trundling along, neither cooperating nor resisting. But some actively collaborated, adjusting to the new circumstance by aligning with the initiators of it, finding an opportunity to advance.
In the swell of an organizational storm—a wrenching and Ill-conceived change—we face the same decision those counseled by Schein did; resist and perish, be passive and survive, or collaborate and gain (at least temporarily).
But what happens when the storm subsides? It’s no surprise that most of us react to organizational change passively, ducking our heads until the smoking clouds clear. But if we closely align with those who foisted the change upon us, abruptly and disconcertingly, and they pass like storms do, where are we? Associated with those who left scorched earth in their path, who left a minimum winning coalition and a maximum losing coalition, who left wounds. We’re soaked.
When the storm comes—and it will; it always does—be careful where you seek shelter. Being under the tree is not the best place to be when the storm subsides.
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The lesson for the leader then is to put in incentives for the individuals in the organization to be involved rather than to be intimidated or isolated. That may be the biggest challenge particularly if the change threatens the comfort of those who need to participate.