Don’t amputate your fist – what the UCI need to learn about culture change

This is the second post I have dedicated to the UCI in light of the Lance Armostrong affair. In terms of an organization and a total culture needing change, I’m not sure there is a better example right now – and certainly not one getting the press scrutiny of the UCI. It’s a fascinating case to look at.

Pat McQuaid

On Monday, the UCI accepted the USADA’s case against Lance Armstrong and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. This might be seen as a big positive in the fight against doping in cycling, and a sign that Pat McQuaid, the organisation’s embattled President is moving in the right direction. And yet, that is far from the case. It has been easy to “throw Lance Armstrong under a bus” in the current climate. What is far harder to do, and where McQuaid has been totally unconvincing is in taking accountability for the UCI’s own role in the fiasco.

In January of this year, Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen (former President of the UCI) announced their intention to sue Paul Kimmage – a well known cycling journalist and anti-doping campaigner. Kimmage famously opened Pandora’s box on the Lance Armstrong affair when he completed a seven hour interview with Floyd Landis, a former team mate of Armstrong who made a number of direct allegations about doping. McQuaid and Verbruggen are suing Kimmage claiming their “reputations have been seriously damaged” by the article and citing their “annoyance”. Interestingly, they chose to sue Kimmage (currently unemployed) personally, rather than the publications that ran the interview, (L’Equipe and The Sunday Times). Kimmage has explained his thinking for why they have done this:

“Clearly they don’t want this addressed properly in court, because if they did, they would have addressed their letter to L’Equipe… L’Equipe would have sent along their finest barristers and presented a defence of this. They would also have brought all of the witnesses that you would need to defend it.

“Clearly they [McQuaid and Verbruggen] don’t want that to happen, which is why they have targeted me rather than the newspapers. That would be my reading of it.”

Why is this relevant? Because this type of reaction has typified McQuaid’s handling of the entire Lance Armstrong affair: Bullish and defensive when challenged personally. And because the UCI has enabled the culture of doping and secrecy that has brought professional cycling to this juncture. The point is presciently made by Landis in his interview with Kimmage:

Kimmage:              How many of the decisions you made after that (Landis’ assertion that the UCI covered up Armstrong’s positive doping result) were coloured by this experience you’ve had with the UCI and their relationship with Lance? How big a factor was that in the decision you made to dope?

Landis:                   That’s all of it. If I had any reason to believe that the people running the sport really want to fix it, I may have actually said ‘If I wait long enough I’ll have the chance to win without doing this (doping) but there was no scenario in my mind where in my lifetime I was going to get a chance to race the Tour and win clean. So, all of it had that as a backdrop.

 

Talking about organizational change, Martin Bauer of LSE argues that resistance is very much like pain in the body; uncomfortable to deal with, but a valuable signaling mechanism. We may not enjoy it, but pain is essential for our survival, and its value to us should not be underrated. Kimmage’s criticism is a vital part of the cycling community. Rather than trying to understand what actions the UCI have taken that have caused this criticism and doing something about it, McQuaid is trying to ostracise and silence him; a bit like amputating your fist because you hurt it punching a wall.

Kimmage continues to act as a thorn in the side of the cycling hierarchy, giving this stinging radio interview on Monday. More to the point, he has recently asked difficult questions of this year’s Tour winner, Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky. While some would argue he is sucking the joy out of British cycling at its finest hour, if the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that organized cycling needs the cynical eye and honest questioning of Kimmage and others like never before.

And this is the key point. Cycling needs a massive culture change and core to this is cultivating a new set of behaviours – discipline, measured cynicism and brutal transparency. In vilifying the type of behavior that cycling desperately needs to catalyse, McQuaid is choking this change to death before it has a chance to take root. Kimmage himself sums up the cultural implications best:

“We talk about omerta all the time in the sport. This is how they enforce it. Is this what they would say is part of the fight against doping? I don’t think so. This is all about the omerta, and enforcing the omerta.”

It is a leader’s job to manage meaning, to put words to a new positive vision of the future and to demonstrate integrity by following these words with meaningful action. Only one of these two men is acting as a leader for cycling at the moment, and it’s not Pat McQuaid.

Habermas, Knowledge and Resistance to Change

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.