Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Manipulation and instilling a sense of urgency: do they really contribute to make the process of change smooth sailing?

Despite change is and has always been with us, especially during the last decades change, with particular reference to the exogenous environment, has occurred at an increasingly fast pace. This circumstance has accounted for employers feeling the urge to acquaint themselves with change and to virtually constantly be involved in the implementation of change initiatives within their organisation.

As contended by Kotter (2008), over the centuries the rate of change has been going up and down not following a linear and clearly identifiable trend so that it could be argued that, over the past century, the rate of change has been averagely creeping up. More recently, however, the frequency change takes place has remarkably increased, insofar as change which has been traditionally deemed episodic can nowadays be regarded as continuous.

Leading change is typically considered as a difficult feat by reason of the energy it requires and the efforts managers have to make to oppose the harsh and fierce restraining forces usually emerging during its introduction. As properly summarised by Kanter (1983), change is considered “exhilarating when done by us and disturbing when done to us.” To achieve the intended results managers should drive change providing first and foremost a sense of direction, purpose and meaningfulness to the overall process. Yet, since for the successful attainment of the final aim people definitely represent a key factor, managers efforts need to be directed to, and focused on, engaging and truly involving in the process all of an organisation employees.

The activities performed by managers to implement change invariably encounter the harsh resistance opposed by the individuals who feel threated by the employer initiative. To counterbalance and win individual resistance, managers might be at times tempted to resort to methods which could be apparently considered questionable and controversial so that the need to answer the question whether it could be considered appropriate applying in change management the Machiavellian dictum “the end justifies the means” emerges somewhat of spontaneously. An additional significant point is represented by the behaviour exhibited by managers when implementing change and more specifically whether these might be considered as acting with integrity and ethically in the event should manipulate information.

Analysing the most widely recognized change management models developed so far we can actually identify in some of them a few traits which could apparently (but just apparently) be considered very closely linked to information manipulation. The change management frameworks developed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (Kanter et al, 1992) and John Kotter (1996) consider indeed both crucial for the successful introduction of change establishing or creating a sense of urgency, but can this requirement actually be considered as, and associated with, manipulation? The answer, it is better to immediately point it out, is: no, it cannot.

Robbins (2007) defines manipulation as the managers “covert influence attempts”; meaning that to practically achieve their intended results managers might at times opt to manipulate the information provided to employees. Robbins (2007) refers to manipulation as to a process aiming at deliberately and intentionally providing to others distorted and false information. The intended objective is to let information appear more acceptable and to some extent even attractive to the other individuals. News are hence spread deliberately avoiding unveiling the aspects and facts which are likely to be negatively perceived by employees and thus likely to prompt these to oppose resistance to change. At the same time, false rumours aiming at influencing individual perception of the real consequences of accepting or resisting change are also diffused.

The two informal communication channels activated, clearly aiming at preventing the emergence of restraining forces whereas favouring the development of the driving ones, are intended to produce the exclusive objective to facilitate the planned or ongoing introduction of change.

An example of manipulation can be represented by the management activity of spreading rumours about the imminent closing down of one of the employer factories, stores or branches to prevent employee resistance to the planned “across-the-board salary cut” (Robbins, 2007). The aim would clearly be that to receive the employees’ support to the planned reduction of the personnel budget smoothly and quickly, before unions could have the time to organise and threat industrial action or the worst comes to the worst prevent the employees to plan any activity aiming at opposing the plan. Faced with the possibility to lose their job and not having other available options, individuals would very likely accept a salary reduction.

Manipulation nonetheless is not invariably intended to completely and deliberately distort the real content of a message. Buchanan (2001), for instance, reports the case of a successful and controversial change implementation process in a hospital where manipulation was indeed used, but in a rather particular way. One of the hospital managers in charge of leading a “re-engineering change process” recounts that, despite he dislikes using the verb manipulate, at one point he had to do that. He also refers that he had to resort to manipulation as somewhat of an obligation, the last resort to surmount an unexpected severe situation. One day the manager was approached by a very angry consultant who had learned about a particular aspect of the change procedure underway, which would have directly affected him and about which he was not clearly happy. The manager was then prompted to provide a suitable and convincing answer and so he did with the help of manipulation, insofar as the consultant was even quite happy for the feedback he received. The answer was neither completely a lie, nor completely the true, but the consultant accepted it and the process went on.

It clearly was a case of manipulation, but reportedly in that instance it revealed to be particularly important for the successful implementation of the overall process and did not allegedly produced any major reported downside.
Crisis or urgency?

Before investigating the appropriateness and effectiveness of practically resorting to activities aiming at establishing a sense of urgency or instilling a sense of crisis, it is worth to determine whether the two terms “urgency” and “crisis” can actually be considered equivalent.

The Oxford Dictionary (2006) defines urgency as a state requiring immediate action or attention; the Cambridge Dictionary (2008) also stresses the need for the required action to be performed before anything else. Crisis is defined by The Oxford Dictionary (2006) as a time of intense difficulty and danger, whereas the Cambridge Dictionary (2008) defines crisis as a situation which has reached an extremely difficult or dangerous point.
The presence of some overlaps notwithstanding, it appears that the two words relate to two different levels of severity and necessity and consequently concepts. The two terms nonetheless are very often interchangeably used in practice, as whether these were actually synonyms. As acknowledged by Clarke (2009), to the largest part of professionals “urgent” appears to be a “close cousin” of “crisis.” The former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner delivering a speech to Harvard Business School’s MBA students did not make any difference between the two terms either: “Transformation of an enterprise begins with a sense of crisis or urgency. No institution will go through fundamental change unless it believes it is in deep trouble and needs to do something different to survive.”
Kotter (2009), who recognises that there actually is a certain degree of confusion on the use of the term crisis in change management, maintains that the belief according to which “without a burning platform” you cannot successfully deliver and implement change is actually erroneous. The concept of “burning platform” relates to the hypothetical circumstance in which whether an individual should find himself in a burning platform, although the two available options are indeed both terrible, jumping from the platform is a better option compared to stay. Under the “burning platform” circumstance, however, an individual would essentially have no choice; jumping from the platform would represent the only option available to the person to try and save his/her life. Perceived in this way, crisis is likely to negatively impact people behaviour by reason of inducing stress, panic and anxiety, feelings which would hardly reveal to be useful for an individual undergoing change or any other difficult situation.
The concept of urgency to which Kotter (2009) refers has nothing to do with such concepts of crisis, which whether instilled to employees is unlikely to produce any positive outcome. Despite urgency is intended to strongly motivate individuals to relentlessly achieve the final objective, it is in fact not intended to produce considerable levels of stress or anxiety.
Crises are not necessarily helpful to implement changes; these can eventually be used by business leaders to investigate whether they can capitalize on the current state of crisis to curb complacency and establish a truly sense of urgency. According to the circumstances, notwithstanding, employers might also have no chances to make this attempt and what business leaders can hence actually hope is that their organisations will be able to emerge well from those situations (Kotter, 2009).
Despite the terms urgency and crisis actually have a different meaning and their inappropriate use might have an impact on individual perception and feelings, in business the two words are still interchangeably used.

Establishing or creating a sense of urgency

As discussed earlier, generating or establishing a sense of urgency is one of the pillars of the change management models proposed by Kanter et al (1992) and Kotter (1996). Kanter, according to the information and feedback gathered by some empiric studies and investigations, is attributing a growing importance to this component of his model insofar as considering it as an “exceptionally important asset” (Craven, 2008).

Establishing and creating a sense of urgency could be to some extent considered as an initiative similar to that of manipulating information, but this is not actually the case. Kanter (2008) defines a false sense of urgency as a “terrible, terrible problem” in that it is very likely to generate in turn anxiety, frenetic behaviour and stress. These components cannot be obviously identified with what it takes to facilitate and ease the implementation of change. By contrast, during this procedure individuals need to be lucid, involved, informed and aware of the positive effects that the successful change process implementation can bring to them and to the overall organisation. Individuals whose feelings are dominated by confusion, fear, stress and anxiety are much more prone to take a defensive position and as such to resist change.
A false sense of urgency, Kotter (2009) warns, is extremely detrimental for a business and points out to frequent meetings and Power Point presentations, which he defines activity and not productivity, as a clear evidence of a bogus sense of urgency. What he also deems extremely dangerous and capable to seriously jeopardise the successful implementation of change is complacency, which sometimes is more difficult to identify. Managers invariably claim that in their area everything is going sorely well and that they are performing their activities in the most proper way so that there is no need to plan, design and implement any change.

The overall idea could apparently be considered puzzling: on the one hand business leaders have to establish and generate a sense of urgency, which actually sounds as somewhat of an artificial procedure, but on the other hand this sense of urgency has to be genuine and truly existing. From this point of view, urgency can be considered as the opposite concept of complacency. Whereas managers may think that everything is going absolutely well and nothing need to be done, business leaders should investigate, scrutinise and examine what is going on in the market and what their competitors are doing to foresee possible threats and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the external environment. Urgency has to actually be generated from this constant investigation.

As Kotter (2009) suggests, a true sense of urgency is not a natural state and “it has to be created and recreated.” This requires CEOs and top executives to be very skilled, mindful and invariably active in trying to come up with better and more suitable approaches to do things, albeit in practice the largest part of the business executives (possibly in a bid to avoid being forced to leave their comfort zone) may be persuaded to be already acting with “smart urgency” (Kotter, 2009). To create and establish a sense of urgency employers need to understand how to generate urgency and identify which circumstances can help them to generate it, but they do not essentially need to invent anything.

To eradicate false urgency and genuine complacency business leaders should every now and then leave their offices and visit the different areas of their organisation premises to look at what people actually do (and say), rather than only listening at what managers say (Kotter, 2009). Whether urgency is generated on the basis of false information the result yielded by the initiatives implemented in the light of this cannot obviously be positive.

The need for urgency cannot be considered as a geographically limited issue. It acquires the same significance, and can be managed in virtually the same way, in North America, Europe and East Asia (Kotter, 2008). Some differences might, by contrast, occur amongst organisations according, for instance, to their size. Large corporations might find, for example, it more difficult establishing a sense of urgency (even though it was not the case for Mr Yun when in the mid-1990s he had to introduce a massive process of change in Samsung), albeit it does not mean that this is a straightforward task to perform within small businesses.

Does manipulation invariably represent a viable, supportable option?
Whilst resorting to information or people manipulation cannot be in general considered as appropriate, things are different as regards urgency.

It can be assumed as a general rule that whether an employer has real, compelling reasons for introducing change this should not find it particularly difficult, after having established an efficient communication channel, to get the employee approval and support at large. In these instances, information manipulation and distortion would indeed reveal completely pointless. Manipulation actually habitually comes to play when employers:

- Are extremely uncertain and doubtful about the outcome of their plan;

- Lack trust and confidence on the proposed change;

- Are essentially aware of actually posing a real threat to employees;

- Adopt an anachronistic autocratic leadership style.

Whatever the case, information manipulation will not never ever turn to be useful whatsoever. Sooner or later people become aware of the real reasons for the employer having introduced change and would invariably be in a position to come back to the old way of doing things or threat industrial action. Under such circumstance the employer bargaining power would result extremely weakened by the aggravating factor that the employer had actually tried to conceal from employees the truth.

The only case in which manipulation could turn to be effective is perhaps that in which a change process has to be implemented within an extremely short period of time, for instance according to the Big-Bang approach suggested by Peters (1993): “change radically and do it quickly.” In such a case, since the employer has to implement change rapidly, this might find it particularly difficult to put in place what it takes to appropriately communicate the reasons for change and wait for individuals to genuinely understand these. It clearly depends on the circumstances, but manipulation at large should never be considered as a valued option, nobody likes to be told lies and untrue stories.

Manipulation has hence nothing to do with establishing or generating a sense of urgency, which has rather to be based on real facts and circumstances.

Since change is invariably with us, in order to organizations permanently gain readiness to successful change implementation these should first and foremost work on their culture. Employers will be able to successfully and constantly deal with change only by embedding it in their corporate culture (Kotter, 2009) and by making it a strong component of the organizational values and beliefs. Change would thus be seen by the employees as a rule and not as an exception. This would definitely contribute to make individuals understand that the employer considers their ability and adaptability to change as a mandatory prerequisite and as a behaviour which every employee should be able to exhibit.
Longo, R., (2011), Manipulation and instilling a sense of urgency: do they really contribute to make the process of change smooth sailing?, HR Professionals, Milan [online].