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The Ethics of Organizational Change (2)

(2) Issues related to the way change is delivered
January 2012

This paper is the second 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.

The first paper focused on issues regarding the purpose and consequences of change. This one focuses on issues regarding the way change is promoted and lead. As was the first one, it is based on personal reflections and on interviews of 31 practitioners (consultants or executives).

What can you do when you want someone else to change their way of thinking or acting? In a first chapter the paper reviews the various possible options and the potential ethical problems each of them may entail if one is reluctant to the idea of using others as a mere means to an end (and of tricking them).  The ideal way, in such ethical terms, is an adult to adult relationship where each one respects the other’s freedom and is transparent about their intent. But this does not necessarily lead to the desired change. So, one can be tempted by coercion (leaving aside the respect for the other’s freedom) or manipulation (leaving aside both respect for the other’s freedom and transparency of intent). The frontier between those three ways of acting is sometimes blurred. Moreover, some short term coercion or manipulation may sometimes be used in a longer process where the other’s freedom is respected.
This chapter thus raises two questions to change agents:
- Are they sure they are not coercing and/or manipulating? The answer is sometimes obvious, but in other cases it cannot be so easily identified as it depends on their underlying intent in a given interaction. It therefore requires significant self-awareness and honesty.
- If they are indeed coercing and/or manipulating, are they OK with that? In other words, when does the end justify the means ?

In the second chapter, the paper gives an account of what interviewees told the researcher about the way they face these issues. A vast majority of them admitted that they more or less use manipulation. They would not necessarily be happy with this, they would try to come to it only occasionally and when they feel they have no better solution, but they would accept it as being unavoidable sometimes.
Typical difficult issues or dilemmas in this respect were often mentioned:
- to what extent can I disclose where we go and the problems we face? Change agents saying all they know about what will happen or may happen in some change processes can worsen the situation and make the change even more damaging because of the negative reactions of some stakeholders. Or, if change agents too are uncertain about what will happen, they may not be able to calm down the anxiety some stakeholders may feel in a given situation, thus again, letting them worsening it.
- to what extent can I challenge people, and in particular, the boss of an organisation? Often in a change process, people need to be challenged. However, if they are too much, it stimulates resistance and may block the change. This is particularly true if the person to be challenged is the head of the organisation.
- Am I sure I am not being manipulated myself? This applies to consultants and also to internal change agents when they are not the CEO of the organization. They can be manipulated by some stakeholders, and in particular by the client or the CEO of the change agent. In such a case, they are at risk of serving hidden agendas upon which they are not in agreement, particularly on ethical grounds.
- How much is about playing politics? Organizations are most often political arenas. Not taking this dimension into account is very risky.  However, this leads to thinking of possible allies to the change process and then easily taking sides in some internal fights. This can lead to a differentiated level of transparency and of information sharing with the various stakeholders, and hence, to some manipulation.

The final chapter offers some comments. In particular, based on the interviewees’ experience, it describes two required qualities and one action change agents need to do in order to avoid falling into too many ethical traps. Not surprisingly, the first quality is courage. The other one is the ability to anticipate. Ethical dilemmas can sometimes be avoided provided they can be prevented early enough. This leads to the action, which is clarification:  clarifying the change agent’s role and also what’s in the change for the stakeholders. By choosing to invest their energy in a change process, even as followers, people take risks: sometimes it is a practical risk about disclosing certain secrets that make their working-life more comfortable, or protect them from stress, or save their job; sometimes it is a psychological risk, like accepting to lower their defences and get involved in a project (lack of involvement being often a survival mechanism in a poorly managed environment). The responsibility of those promoting the change, if they wish to avoid manipulation, is to clarify its consequences for stakeholders, in terms both of benefits and damages, and how far this is uncertain. Even when events seem to be predictable in the short term, there is always a horizon where they cease to appear clearly, and nowadays this horizon gets closer and closer.

Full pdf  version: click here

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


#2 visit 2012-03-27 15:03
Comments from Dan Ballbach

Thank you for the opportunity to read your latest paper. It has taken me awhile but I did read it in entirety. You are making a valuable contribution to change leader work as you raise awareness of ethical issues. The extended discussion of manipulation is especially valuable as I think this is the border area we contend with on a regular basis. In fact, I wonder if we are not hired by clients on occasion because they expect manipulation to be part of the service we provide. I have not thought that through but I have experienced engagements when I know I was at least a messenger and expected to do what it took in terms of persuasion (including some manipulation) to communicate a particular change path.

I have had experience with formal mediation, both as a mediator and as an attorney, and think that you may understate the role of manipulation/coercion that mediators play. Many times the mediator’s task is just to get a deal done and how he or she gets the parties to that spot is almost inconsequential. So, I have experienced situations where mediators overstate,, understate, lie, manipulate, etc., whatever it takes to beat the parties into a deal. Perhaps that is why I never did much mediation as a mediator because the role was uncomfortable. Not all mediations are that way but in the US I think many disputes that involve who will pay how much are resolved that way and the parties expect that.

I may be more in the “non-interventionist” camp as I facilitate or catalyze change within an organization. Usually I am trying to get an organization to move in some direction rather than stagnate. Thus, I am pushing and prodding and persuading and manipulating. The change needed is up to the organization and I am trying to create an atmosphere where the client will engage in a thoughtful inquiry and deal with the impediments to change. One of the ethical constraints I have come to appreciate comes from a variation of what Pascale has described as “letting the client do the work.” For me that admonition restrains me as to what the specific change might be and how I should limit manipulation to moving the client out of a stuck position.
#1 visit 2012-03-27 15:00
Comments from Stephen N.

In my working life as an employee, I believe that both manipulating and coercing (as defined in your document) were part of what I was employed to do. In the traditional organisations (based upon military hierarchical models) both manipulation and coercion are part of the employment contract. It is done unto all employees by their bosses and all employees are expected to do it unto their subordinates. There are exceptional circumstances where these norms do not apply, but they are rare. I felt some emotional empathy with some of my subordinates when I considered such practices to be unfair to them. On occasions, I also felt such empathy for my bosses who were also sometimes unfairly treated by their own superiors. But in neither case did I feel guilty and I still do not.
I did strive in all cases for maximum disclosure of the driving forces behind the decisions and I considered this a palliative measure; the best I could do in the circumstances. I also refused to make promises to any employees that I did not believe would be delivered. On one occasion, I can recall that this brought me into direct conflict with my boss, whose view was that my job was to lie for the good of the business. I told him that I would not undermine my own and the company’s reputation (for truthful disclosure) by telling staff there would be no redundancies following an acquisition, when we both knew that some redundancies were inevitable.
You say that “ Instrumentalizing others means using them as mere means in order to reach our goal, without consideration of their own interests or wishes.” Of course, interests are not the same as wishes. In management roles, I have always considered that the interests of the business are the basis from which the organisation can provide for the interests of the individuals. This goes back to my team-sports background. The interests of the team always had to predominate over the interests of the individual. A successful team may in time be able to offer opportunities to individuals who are not selected for the next match (which is always against their wishes). The (long term) interests of the individual may therefore be better secured by the successful team (including instrumentalizing others) than by paying heed to (short term) wishes of individuals. Because I believe in maximum open information, all are fully informed and so I understand that your taxonomy calls this “coercion”, temporary or permanent. In the business world, being “dropped from the team” may mean being passed over for a job (temporary) or it may be redundancy (permanent). Fear of either has always appeared to me to be part of the organisational landscape. People for whom fear of either does not influence their motivation simply do not survive (unless by some form of protection, e.g. legal or personal).

As a consultant, I have very much enjoyed the freedom from such organisational constraints. It was when I worked through Gareth Morgan’s Psychic Prison metaphor that I first realised that I had been living in such an environment for many years!!!
So as consultant, I have many freedoms;
1 freedom to scope and define the job and my role in it.
2 freedom to decline the job if it does not meet my own ideals or ideas,
3 freedom to report my own views on what is happening within the organisation
4 freedom to discuss my opinions on untoward behaviours with most actors
5 freedom to file a minority report if I believe it to be needed.
The intellectual freedom that this gives seems to me to be part of what a consultant offers. It goes alongside some deeper understandings of certain aspects of organisational life than are commonly found within the employee cohort. With it comes a compensating responsibility to act responsibly with the freedom that the consultant enjoys (and that others do not enjoy!). Since it is impossible to share with all the actors ALL the knowledge that the consultant has it is almost always the case that the consultant has to exercise some manipulation (and in your definition coercion) in the short term to enable the organisation to discover the benefits from the eventually “changed status”.
So, I believe that “responsible disturbance” of a complex adaptive system acknowledges imperfect knowledge (of now and the future outcome). A consultant exercising “responsible disturbance influence” has to take a view on the ends and the means used in order to evaluate the balance between the two. As defined in your paper, coercion and manipulation are both integral parts of a consultant’s toolkit if used as a temporary means of achieving a wider understanding of a new way of working. In Adam Kahane’s terms, “Power and Love” need to be combined. Without the use of proportionately balanced coercion and manipulation, little change will ever occur. This will be because limiting change processes (particularly those of a transformative nature) to the concepts and ideas that people will accept voluntarily (with their existing worldviews) rules out deep change.
So, with all my freedoms, I do believe I have exercised both coercion and manipulation as a consultant, but I have used them within frameworks that I consider to be “responsible disturbance influence”. Ends and means have been proportionate and information has been as freely available as possible. I therefore do not feel “guilty” of abuse of any sort.
I question myself in the work I am currently tendering for, where I know that I am in a potentially strong position to manipulate and advise coercion. Here too, my conscience is clear, so I sleep well at night, although, I would love to have more work than I am able to attract. And that is also partly because I exercise the freedoms and judgement transparently (and that is not what many organisations are looking for!!!).
Sorry that this is not structured to your own evaluation frameworks, but it has been an emergent tirade!
Thanks for the interaction.

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