Paradox of Organizational Change

by  Dr. Ross Wirth  |  Change Management

The following statements are often heard from those giving advice to those leading organizational change initiatives:
“The first requirement is to have top management on board.”
“Top management buy-in is essential for change to occur.”
“Significant change will only occur if led from the top.”
“The CEO determines the organizational values.”

On the other hand, the following statements are heard just as often from those involved in the change effort:
“The CEO change proclamation is only seen as a passing fad that they can wait out.”
“The rank and file only gives passive compliance to management directives.”
“Top management support does not guarantee employee commitment.”
“Given a reward system, the organization will learn how to play the game.”

Sound contradictory? Employees are increasingly treating management proclamations with cynicism following years of management fads. Yet, grass root change is often frustrated by their positional inability to take the necessary steps for implementation. Which is the correct view of change?

Instead of looking at organizational change through one lens or another, recognize that there is a grain of truth in both views. When the process is viewed in a holistic manner it can be seen that both positions are true when viewed collectively, but wrong when viewed in isolation, which is the way most change initiatives are implemented. Top management lays out a vision for the future, only to see it frustrated and ignored by the organization when something else they say or do contradicts the organization’s view of the proposal. Nothing is seen so clearly as management inconsistencies, even when accidental.

Hierarchical authority is sufficient to get temporary compliance but not lasting commitment. At the same time individuals in the organization see problems they are having in their daily jobs, but are frustrated by their lack of organizational power to make the changes that would improve their situation. Both approaches to initiate change happen every day and fail just as often. Top management gets frustrated that the organization “just doesn’t get it.” Line managers get tired of trying to make a difference and give up and accept the status quo and the problems that go with it. They accept the only option they have: they complain about their jobs and how “management just doesn’t get it.” Interesting, everyone doesn’t “get it” while pointing at each other.

The reasons for change failure can often be traced to the approach taken and the underlying issues that inhibit change from occurring. Management keeps trying different programs, searching for just the right solution that the organization will adopt. This constant change in focus confuses the organization. They see only each individual program, missing the consistent theme of what management is attempting. Further, there is a difference between compliance and commitment. A management dictate will receive quiet compliance that can be viewed on the surface as successful change. But scratching the surface will show a lack of commitment that will undermine any lasting change.

All management actions are viewed by employees in close context with other management comments and actions. And often, relationships will be seen where they really don’t exist, but “perception is reality.” Thus, management is often their own enemy when they are trying to initiate change. For example, promoting team spirit at the same time there are workforce reductions will create contradictory messages. Yet both messages may be required for the overall change to be effective. This sets up a situation where great care is required in both crafting a comprehensive message and anticipating possible reaction that cannot fully be anticipated. However, corporate change communication programs that are rolled out from the top can often actually inhibit this communication because of the background noise and confusion among multiple message themes.

Time for reflection – when are you the enemy of the change you champion?


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What People Are Saying

Sybil Stershic (@SybilQSM)  |  27 Dec 2013  |  Reply

Great post, Ross. A critical mistake, as you so well point out, is that management doesn’t understand the “difference between compliance and commitment.” What’s needed is understanding, empathy, and respect by all players in the organization.

Dr. Ross Wirth  |  29 Dec 2013  |  Reply

You are so very right about managers too often overlooking the difference between commitment and compliance. This often results in passive-aggressive behavior versus the desired support that moves change initiatives toward success.


Tim Kuppler (@TimKuppler)  |  28 Dec 2013  |  Reply

Excellent post. I think leaders often underestimate the amount of work they need to manage to give any major change effort a real chance of success. Disconnects stand out or cynicism grows if the organization doesn’t see something about what’s very different with “this” change effort or if they are not involved in designing the approach so they feel part of the process.

A well-designed change effort often needs connected to purpose, vision, values / behaviors, strategies, goals, measures, involvement, communication, motivation and a clear management system to track progress and make adjustments. Kotter wrote that leaders often under-communicate the change vision by a factor of 10, 100 or even 1000X. They then become frustrated that some people in the organization don’t just get it when they really just touched the surface of what it takes to make a major change effort successful.

Dr. Ross Wirth  |  29 Dec 2013  |  Reply

Another issue that comes with under-communication is communicating the wrong message. Those who are actively planning the change initiative too often forget the thought process that got them to their current thinking about the change initiative. This results in a message that is more suitable for later phases of the change process than where most people are when change initiative is kicked-off.


David Bovis  |  15 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Apt, well presented and pertinent to every organisation i’ve ever worked with (and most leaders).

It’s refreshing to read something from someone who is entirely on the same page (it doesn’t happen very often).

In my language, i’d agree by saying; The conflict between Exec’s, Managers and Shop-floor in communication terms stems from their relative Emotional, Environmental Experience (EEE – imprinting). This is a major part of the formation of cultural layers, which ultimately become cultural barriers. Where language evolves in these layers independently of each other, it is rare that modern approaches to set strategy, agree structure and control through systems do anything but enhance and perpetuate the divides and disconnects formed by those experiences had at different levels of the organisation.

Understanding psychology and neuroscience makes it very easy to see these barriers and related issues, it also provides the knowledge required to address them and better effect change and performance improvement. Yet, when was the last time any of us heard of a Leadership team going on a course which connects the application of best practice tools (Variation control), Systems (Control by logical judgement), psychology (of individuals interacting with systems) and neuroscience (the science behind learning, reactions and memory).

Bring forth the leadership revolution! I’m right beside you.

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