“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller
Katherine Switzer (with the help of her boyfriend and fellow runners) becomes the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon in 1967, despite the race organiser trying to forcibly stop her running
The above video triggered some interesting thoughts for me on the links between empathy and organisational change: Rifkin suggests here that “Empathy is our ability to show solidarity with each other” and that is it “grounded in our rooting for each other to flourish and be.”
There is a wealth of research in the field of evolutionary psychology suggesting empathy exists because it helps those that have it to survive. It is easy to imagine how an ability to put ourselves in each others’ shoes and root for each other has helped us to co-ordinate our interests, collaborate and organise. And it is easy to take this a step further and imagine how organised, collaborating, empathetic individuals gave themselves a load of advantages over others.
How does empathy work? By listening to each other, we can better understand each others motivations. This allows us to create knowledge, understanding and meaning that enables co-ordination of our actions. In other words, empathetic dialogue is all about historical/hermeneutic knowledge.
This is nothing new in itself. Iban Mayo was championing the idea of listening to employees and allowing them to engage in the change process as far back as the 1930s. The issue is that much recent literature still relies on Taylorist notions of rational managers identifying the correct path for change and overcoming resistance from employees who are attached to the status quo. There is an unspoken fear on the part of managers that allowing employees to design their own change will lead to off-the-wall suggestions, founded on employees’ rational pursuit of laziness and self interest.
But thinking of ourselves as empathetic first and rational second suggests there is a lot more give in the system. It suggests that in the face of external change, we are not inclined to steadfastly pursue our own self-interest, but that we are “soft-wired” to find a new way of working together.
So, assuming collaboration is still sensible in changed circumstances, people are pre-disposed to find a way to make it work. Facilitating an empathetic discussion will enable people to make sense of the change and build the hermeneutic knowledge they need to give their best in the new environment.
Letting go is always frightening for a manager, but thinking of employees as empathetic human beings is a very helpful first step.
One of the things I’d like to do with this blog is to try to build a bridge between dense and complicated academic theory, and the real world – where some of these dense and brilliant ideas might be put to use. Today’s focus is Jurgen Habermas – and what his theory of knowledge interests can tell us about organisational change and resistance.
In his theory of knowledge, Habermas identifies three “knowledge interests” – three motivations people seek and create knowledge:
Rational/Empirical: Knowledge that is created with the aim of better predicting and controlling our environment
Historical/Hermeneutic: Knowledge that is created to establish reliable inter-subjective meaning – ie knowledge that allows people to establish a common frame of reference, a common understanding and co-ordinate around it
Critical/Emancipatory: Knowledge that is created to challenge the status quo, and to make the invisible constraints of language visible and thus changeable.
(For a good academic overview, see Bauer &Gaskell (2000): p 12-15)
Where this becomes relevant for organisational change is when you consider knowledge interests in an organisation. While there is undoubtedly a need for rational/empirical knowledge of the outside world, any organisation is only permitted to exist if its members find an ability to co-ordinate some of their personal motivations. In other words, the creation of historical/hermeneutic knowledge is necessary for the existence of an organisation.
All too often, change is approached by managers from an empirical perspective. The only knowledge required is that there is a change in circumstance which logically implies a need to change something within the organisation.
While the logic for change may be sound and irrefutable, if the change implied is not consonant with the hermeneutic knowledge that lives within the system, people will be unwilling to accept it. People need to create new hermeneutic knowledge, to re-affirm how their personal motivations and their identity relate to this changed environment.
Resistance, in this framework is not employees being lazy, or irrational; it is the conflict between a new way of doing things and an existing consensus on the identity, goals and meaning of the organisation. Resistance in this sense should not be crushed, but engaged with, understood and included.