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The Ethics of Organizational Change (1)

(1) Issues regarding the purpose and consequences of change

December 2010

This paper is the first in a set of three papers which explore the ethical issues one may face when promoting or facilitating change within an organization. Beyond the peculiarities of organizational change, these papers raise issues that are also relevant when one wants to change something in a group or in a social system in general. Provided they involve several people, many projects we may get involved in are change projects. The papers also show how ethical issues can help or lead people to find their way of acting in the world.


This first one underlines the ambivalence and the ambiguity of change. It is ambivalent because, in spite of the positive image it enjoys to-day, change can serve all kinds of purposes. It is ambiguous because it usually brings positive and negative outcomes to stakeholders, which are not necessarily clear at the beginning, and which are unequally shared among these stakeholders.
Then, the author gives an account of a set of 31 interviews he did with practitioners (executives and consultants). He reviewed with them ethical issues they were facing and possible attitudes towards them. This first paper is focused on issues linked with the purpose and the consequences of the change; in particular, how do change agents justify their action when they get other people to change their attitudes, behaviours, or even their jobs or careers, and when these people do not initially want to ? The paper describes three different logics which coherently link the way change agents justify both their actions and their own legitimacy to perform them, and their choices in terms of jobs or change strategies.  The link between ethical choices and actions in the world is made apparent. These three logics are derived from the answers to two fundamental questions:
- what is the biggest risk: doing harm when intervening or failing to do what would be useful when not intervening ?
- does one ethically assess actions according to their consequences or to their compliance with principles ?
In a final part, the paper gives reasons why these logics may be found in social change in general, and not only in organizational change. It also explores how one actually navigates between these logics; it suggests that ethical progress for each of us lies in enhanced awareness of the way we do this navigation.

Full pdf version: click here

This paper is only available in English. A Word version is available on demand.


#3 Denis Bourgeois 2012-04-23 13:39
Comments from Richard Coe

On the ambiguity of change:
This is why I was drawn to Appreciative Inquiry (AI) which engages all stakeholders in co-creating the change. The change agent does not take the side of the CEO who has omnipotently decided on the future of the organization. AI honours the joint ownership of all players in the organisation, even past contributors (especially founders) but always present owners (shareholders) yes, but also employees, customers, and don’t forget suppliers and most important – the community.

On the uncertainty of the change benefits in the long term:
Great paragraph. We cannot be all seeing and all knowing and some degree of risk assessment based on possible future scenarios and the adverse implications of these, need to be considered.

“how do I define what is beneficial or detrimental to an individual or to a social group?”:
My answer would be – don’t ! Let the individuals or the social group have a meaningful and fully engaged input – then they will co-create the change and it will have a better chance of beneficial and sustainable outcomes because they will all own the programme – not just the CEO.

On cultural relativism:
This is a conversation that really interests me. I do believe that too many commercial organization leadership absolves themselves from their corporate values and ethics because they say that is the only way they can trade in cultures where corruption is rife. They therefore perpetuate the scourge of corruption. I was two years in Indonesia and in the end had to leave because I could not live with the underhand payments that had to be made to exist as a commercial entity in that country. This could be seen as ‘being holier than thou’ because I come from a western culture but I sincerely believe that corruption is iniquitous, does not allow anywhere near a level playing field for healthy commercial competition and condemns the underpriveledged and poor to be ever so. The current governement in Indonesia is working hard at ridding itself of endemic corruption. Western corporations should not subscribe to its continuance. Yes that is a moral judgement but it is a no-brainer from my perspective. Poor countries will be forever poor if corruption is seen as a systemic and irremovable part of the culture.

Does what happened before matter ? :
Another interesting question. My opinion is that every organization is socially constructed and the encumbants should be mindful of those that built the organisation as well as have a social responsibility for maintaining its value, in all meanings of that word, for present stakeholders – and moreover providing a strong organisation for the future stakeholders. I have already defined my five stakeholder groups.

“How far can I or should I intervene in the social world ? How far does the risk of damages for not doing things exceed the risk of damages for doing ?”:
The dilemma that should always be considered, but no one person be he CEO or change agent should decide.

On the pragmatist minimalist logic:
YES ! Now we get to a model that I can identify with, egalitarian, valuing all stakeholder values and opinions.

“how are you sure the people involved know better than you ?”:
No, not always but their opinions should be included in the decisions and consensus built on multiple views be found.

On CEOs assessing the ethical acceptability of their actions through their results:
This is the great debate after the demonstration of how the global economy is made up of separate but interdependent organizations so that of one topples over the whole world economy can go down like a stack of cards. Hence the balance of power having to shift from the owners and their appointed managers to a wider community with a new moral compass.

On quotes of interviewees saying they work for the profit and success of the company first:
There is a good case for commercial organizations to adopt the triple bottom line : Profit, People and Planet.

Who measures success ? Just the Shareholders and the CEO ? How should success be measured ?

Oh Dear ! Herein lies the growth of greed and exclusive agendas for shareholder value.
Who really decides ‘for’ the stakeholders what is good for them ?

On the key challenging question to pragmatist interventionist logic: are you sure you really know ?:
YES ! This is the key question.

On the key challenging question to pragmatist idealist logic: are you sure you are serving your values, and not your own projections and desires of power ? :
YES again !

On the possible application of these three logics beyond the organizational context:
Yes there needs to be debate about ethical standards demanded by the new environment of interdependence in the global society. Many lessons from 2008.

On participative change:
Participative change must be the way to find low risk, sustainable change for all stakeholders.

Can I suggest that, in this context, change agents do not have to take sides, only to decide on a broad theme for particpative stakeholder dialogue which may have a favoured end in sight but which may change based on the energies of the full participative process. (AI being one of the structured processes).

On the dance with several logics and self-awareness (4.2):
I love this paragraph.

Much food for thought here and many interesting questions. Modern commercial organisations and we change agents who can facilitate the process, need to help co-create new organizations for this millennium which I feel need to transform from the old models – or die in sefish greed and corruption at the top. Thanks Denis for posing the questions.
#2 visit 2011-02-17 14:51
Comments from Dan Ballbach

On the role of the change consultant:
I wonder if there is a preliminary role that change agents play in helping an organization identify change opportunities. An organization may be stuck and seek outside advice on options, including change. Also, I often see a role of catalyzing change but not necesssarily promoting a specific change.
Similarly I see a role for change agents in helping identify the benefits and damages but leaving to the organization the big role of balancing the benefits and damages in a way that presents a « solution » or decision which the organization itself makes.

I often am presented with the issue of the sustainability or longevity of an organization in its current state. That thrusts me into the role of identifying impediments and brainstorming solutions. Short term « damages » will occur for the sake of organizational survival or continued success. The ethical dilemma here may become one of the « right » or « wrong » of organizational survival. Do I run the risk of elevating organizaional survival to its being the desired solution or the be all and end all ?
“If the company is at risk, almost any change is worth it”
Interesting comment but seems to ignore the possibility that the company should be at risk and the answer to survival may be « no. »

One of the ethical issues I find present is how to deal with confidential information presented to me by members of an organization. Confidentiality is important to get candor but then you must be able to use the information for the sake of the organization. My usual pattern is to say that I will not attribute information to an individaul but I will be free to use it as pertinent to the effort. It becomes hard when unique views are easily attributed to a particular individual or group without my doing so.

On the issue of cultural relativism:
Related may be the issue of when do the values of an organization change. That issue gets mixed with necessary cultural change often driven by organizational change.

On the conclusion and the hybrid idea:
I really am drawn to the hybrid idea and found I had experienced being a change agent in probably all the logics you have drawn. It then becomes incumbent on me to know where I am at a given time as the ethical dilemmas may be presented in different forms and take on different meaning depending on the mutual understanding of my role.
#1 visit 2011-02-09 18:24
Your section 3.1.2
I’ve been puzzling over this one – the question of responsibility for what happened in the past. You say it was not mentioned frequently, and that you decided that it was a general issue rather than one to do with your core interest.
I wonder. It seems to me that responsibility for what happened in the past may be very important. What was done has all sorts of current, present consequences. Some consequences are expectations of employees, some are the brand that has been created (the expectations of customers..), some are norms of behaviour – maybe one could say the culture of an organization. Some things might be regarded as ‘promises’. We talk about implicit promises in implicit contracts. Do successors to those who made the contracts have obligations to honour the contracts and the promises? As soon as we talk about changing cultures I think we are talking about breaking promises: the promise that this will happen if you do this, or you will be treated this way if you do that. This is a different way to express ‘change’, but one which emphasises the moral dimension.
Some of the promises might be explicit too.
When the person/s who made the promises are no longer present, does the ‘organization’ have to honour the promises? So does the new CEO etc have to honour those promises? Of course she may decide not to do so, but there is an obligation to look at what the promises might have been.
Maybe the reason that your interviewees did not raise this issue much, is that most were consultants, not executives? I think executives might be more likely to feel this issue.
(from Elizabeth H)

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