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Beyond rhetoric: dynamics of anxiety and change

In this third of four articles, I show how anxiety creates resistance and then examine conditions that might lead to meaningful change.

Even when commercial and personal benefits appear incontestable, it is hard to encourage groups of people to adopt new ways of working.

Nevertheless, while for some the very question of whether culture can be 'changed' is moot, experience shows that it is possible to create conditions that encourage both new behaviours and the beliefs that sustain them.

A crucial first consideration is resistance to change. The patterns of assumptions that we call 'culture' give meaning to shared experiences, and accepted norms enable us to negotiate the world with confidence. An aid to survival, culture affords our lives a degree of predictability and security.

When challenged by, for example, the success of an upstart competitor, the invention of disruptive technology or a shift in market demands, our initial response may be denial or defensiveness. This is because disconfirmation (evidence with the potential to dislodge faith in our assumptions) undermines our security. When the enduring signs are strong enough, however, we become concerned that we might have to abandon familiar ways and learn something new.

Such survival anxiety is a powerful force for development. However, alongside the motivation to learn comes also a strong resistance to change. The social scientist Edgar Schein usefully labels this phenomenon 'learning anxiety'. Resistance emanates from our fears about losing power or status in the new culture, being incompetent in new skills and being penalised for inadequate performance. Fears about loss of personal identity and ostracism from valued groups also create resistance. Learning anxiety encourages denial, avoidance and bargaining whenever behaviours and beliefs are called into question: we dig in our heels and change grinds to a halt. Only when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety do we embrace learning.

Fears associated with learning may be diminished through tactics that increase 'psychological safety'. First, a compelling vision championed by senior management as necessary for survival and growth is the foundation. The vision must portray desired ways of working and articulate how both the organisation and the individual will benefit from its realisation.

Thereafter, extensive formal training will increase people's confidence in their ability to acquire new skills. Similarly, groups need a chance to explore informally what norms and beliefs might be valid, and individuals must be empowered to discover their own learning strategies. Chances to practice, feedback on performance and support from coaches, along with forums for sharing ideas with other learners, can also reduce anxiety. Likewise, seeing the new way of working in role models can increase safety. Finally, discipline and reward structures must endorse behaviours aligned with the desired vision.

A second consideration about anxiety relates to how the initiative is discussed and positioned. In the first article in this series, I argued that the rhetoric of culture change was dangerous insofar as it set unrealistic expectations that could lead to disappointment. Similarly, talk of culture change triggers anxiety and creates resistance to change. Promised outcomes are rarely attained: in practice, we associate 'culture' initiatives more immediately with widespread upheaval, organisation restructuring and formidable learning.

This raises a more fundamental question about language. While 'culture change' may be a convenient and legitimate way of communicating the magnitude of the challenge, it also obscures the true nature of the process. Cultural assumptions are not dictated, but emerge naturally as people interact with each other, engage with the environment and solve shared problems. In practice, then, the vision should not emphasise a specific desired culture.

What sets people at (relative) ease is an unambiguous statement about a shared way of working that is aligned with commercial, organisational and personal priorities. Of course, to go beyond mere tinkering with procedures and tub-thumping about core values the vision must account for the complex interplay of cultural elements.

However, change may be accomplished by talking less about culture per se and more about valid ways of working and how these might be learned. While assumptions are impervious to management edict, we are able to create the conditions whereby culture evolution over time aids group performance. Effective communication is a prerequisite.

This introduces a third, related condition for successful change: the need to avoid the over-engineering (i.e., excessive prescription) that often emerges when managers are anxious about outcomes they cannot control. Clearly, insofar as assumptions evolve naturally from what people do, little is gained from dogmatic insistence on a particular culture. A premium, therefore, should be attached to 'doing' and experimentation, so that cultural norms might be allowed to emerge as people interact with each other and the environment.

In project terms, it makes sense to allow this culture to evolve in a manageable, separate part of the organisation. Positive outcomes enabled by the emerging culture here can then serve as motivation for wider adoption of desirable assumptions and behaviours.

Anxiety can derail change in various ways. Nevertheless, confident leaders may harness the power of psychological safety, a robust vision and appropriate levels of engineering to enable their organisations to survive and prosper.

Quentin Millington, FInstLM (pictured) helps multinationals to harness the potential of national and corporate cultures to enable executive and organisation performance; he is part-time specialist in cross-cultural leadership at Cambridge's Judge Business School.