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Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for September 2012

The paradoxes of organisational change

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It is a truism that organisations are in a constant state of change. It seems that those who run organisations are rarely satisfied with the status quo, and their unending quest to improve products, performance, sales or whatever makes change an inescapable fact of organizational life.

Many decision makers and managers who implement change take a somewhat naïve view of the process:  they focus on what they want rather than all the things that could happen.  This is understandable because change projects are initiated and plans made when all the nitty-gritty details that may cause problems are not yet in view.  Given that it is impossible to surface all significant details at the start. is there anything that decision-makers and managers can do to address the inevitable ambiguity of change?

One of the underappreciated facets of organizational change is that it is inherently paradoxical. For example, although it is well known that such changes inevitably have unintended consequences that are harmful, most organisations continue to implement change initiatives in a manner that assumes  complete controllability with the certainty of achieving solely beneficial outcomes.

It is my contention that an understanding of the paradoxes that operate in the day-to-day work of change might help managers in developing a more realistic picture of how a change initiative might unfold and some of the problems that they might encounter. In this post, I look at the paradoxes of organizational change drawing on a paper entitled, The social construction of organizational change paradoxes.

Paradoxes are social constructs

More often than not, the success of an organizational change hinges on the willingness of people to change their attitudes, behaviour and work practices.  In view of this it is no surprise that many of the difficulties of organizational change have social origins.

Change makes conflicting demands on people: for example, managerial rhetoric about the need to improve efficiency is often accompanied by actions that actually decrease it. As a result, many of the obstacles to change arise from elements that seem sensible when considered individually, but are conflicting and contradictory when taken together.   This results in paradox. As the authors of the paper state:

We propose that paradox is constructed when elements of our thoughts, actions and emotions that seemed logical when considered in isolation, are juxtaposed, appearing mutually exclusive. The result is often an experience of absurdity or paralysis.

Again it is important to note that change-related paradoxes have social origins – they are caused by the actions of certain individual or groups and their effects or perceived effects on others.

Paradoxes of organizational change

The authors describe three paradoxes of organizational change: paradoxes of performing, belonging and organizing. I describe each of these below, but before I do so, it is worth noting that paradoxes are often exacerbated by people’s reactions to them. In particular,  those affected by a change tend to interpret it using frames of reference that accentuate negative effects. For example, employees may view a change initiative as a threat rather than an opportunity to improve performance.  Paradoxically, their perceptions may become a self-fulfilling reality because their (negative) reactions to the change may reinforce its undesirable effects.

That said let’s look at the three paradoxes of organizational change as described in the paper.

Paradoxes of performing

A change initiative is invariably accompanied by restructuring that results in wholesale changes in roles and responsibilities across the organisation.  Moreover, since large-scale changes take a long time to implement, there is a longish transition period in which employees are required to perform tasks and activities associated with their old and new roles. During this period, employees may have to deal with competing, even conflicting demands.  This, quite naturally, causes stress and anxiety.

Paradoxes of performing relate to contradictions in employees’ self understanding of their identities and roles within the organisation.   As such, these paradoxes are characterized by mixed messages from management.  As the authors state, people faced with such paradoxes often express feelings of   rising frustration with/distrust of management,  doubt (inability to choose) or nihilism (futility of choice). This paradox isparticularly  common when organisations transition from a traditional (functional) management hierarchy to a matrix structure.

Paradoxes of belonging

Another consequence of organizational restructuring is that old hierarchies and workgroups are replaced by new ones. Adjusting to this requires employees to shift allegiances and develop new work relationships. Leaving the safety of a known group can be extremely stressful. Moreover, since the new structures are rarely defined in detail, at least at the start, there is a great deal of ambiguity as to what it really stands for.  It is no surprise, therefore, that some employees attempt to maintain the status quo or even leave while others benefit from the change.

At the heart of this paradox is a double bind where a desire to maintain existing relationships competes with the realization that it is necessary to develop new ones.  People react to this differently, depending on their values, motivations and (above all) their ability to deal with ambiguity.  Inevitably, such situations are characterized by antagonistic attitudes that accentuate differences and/or   peoples’ defensive attitudes that provoke defensiveness in others.

Paradoxes of organizing

The fact that organisations consist of people who have diverse backgrounds, motivations and interests suggests that the process of organizing – which, among things, involves drawing distinctions between groups of people based on their skills –   is inherently paradoxical. The authors quote a couple of studies that support this contention.  One study described how, “friendly banter in meetings and formal documentation [promoted] front-stage harmony, while more intimate conversations and unit meetings [intensified] backstage conflict.”  Another spoke of a situation in which, “…change efforts aimed at increasing employee participation [can highlight] conflicting practices of empowerment and control. In particular, the rhetoric of participation may contradict engrained organizational practices such as limited access to information and hierarchical authority for decision making…”

As illustrated by the two examples quoted in the prior paragraph, a manifestation of a paradox of organizing is that the (new) groups created through the process of organizing can accentuate differences that would not otherwise have mattered. These differences can undermine the new structures and hence, the process of organizing itself.

As the authors suggest, paradoxes of organizing are an inevitable side effects of the process of organizing.  The best (and perhaps the only) solution lies in learning to live with ambiguity.


In the end, the paradoxes discussed above arise because change evokes feelings of fear, uncertainty and doubt within individuals and groups. When such emotions dominate, it is natural that people will not be entirely open with each other and may do things that undermine the aims of the change, often even unconsciously.

An awareness of   the paradoxes of organizing may tempt one to look for solutions. For example, one might think that they might be resolved by “better communication” or “more clarity regarding expectations and roles.” This is exactly what professional “Change Managers” have (supposedly) been doing for years. Yet these paradoxes remain, which suggests that they are natural consequences of change that cannot be “managed away”; those who must undergo the process of change must also suffer the angst and anxiety that comes with it.   If this is so, the advice offered by the authors in the final lines of the paper is perhaps apposite. Quoting from Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi’s book Finding Flow, they state:

Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference . . . It is this serious playfulness, this combination of concern and humility, that makes it possible to be both engaged and carefree at the same time.

…and that is perhaps the best advice I have heard in a long time.

A consulting tragedy in five limericks

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The consultant said, “be assured,
my motives are totally pure.
I guarantee
my inflated fee
is well worth my ‘best practice’ cure.”

Although it was too much to pay,
this argument carried the day:
consultants hired
can always be fired
and assigned much of the blame.

After the contract was signed,
only then did the client find
the solution bought
would definitely not
help leave their troubles behind.

Cos’ the truth was plain to see,
the ‘best practice’ methodology
had only led
to the overhead
of a ponderous bureacracy.

The shock, the horror, the pain-
all that money and effort in vain,
but the tragedy
is the powers that be
would do it all over again.

Written by K

September 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm

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