Thursday, July 9, 2009

Are Change Agents "Spoilsports"? OR The Politeness of Organizational Politics

I recently read a great article by Mark Kingwell in the April 2009 edition of Walrus Magazine called Obama: All in the Game. In that article, I was struck by this:

To refuse the collective illusion of the game is not to cheat; it is
much worse — it’s to be a spoilsport.

What does this mean for those who question the rule book? Organizational culture tends to be self-replicating. In other words, organizations are hegemonic. Following the narrative of the organization means not being a spoilsport, and if you follow it well, you can get ahead. Change is difficult to get off the ground, as it is those who adapt best to the existing narrative that are supported in their career development, while innovators can be seen as threats.

In public life, there is more often than not a misfit between our real emotions and our professional persona. Emotion is a response to the world's response to our desires. Some of our desires are selfish, but more often they are desires for fair treatment and the resolution of distress-producing circumstances, which would benefit the organization generally.

This is a clue to the objectivity of a political malaise - that it disturbs people, even while they work hard to rationalize it away, repress or deny it, or even take personal responsibility for it, when it is ultimately the product of a collectively produced socio-cultural dynamic. Organizational stress and health issues are in ample evidence, unfortunately.

As long as our desires are healthy, our emotions are healthy. In contrast, having "emotional intelligence" (EQ) means you have managed to be on the same page as other adherents to a narrative, i.e, that you are savvy enough not to question the rule book, and that you are not digging too deeply into causes, disturbing the apparent comfort of the confines of the status quo. EQ means that you put your professional health before your emotional health.

In other words, EQ represents your capacity for diplomacy, not innovation. That will make you a survivor. For no matter how well-intentioned you might be in looking for solutions to problems that distress you and others, it is more often the collective will that the narrative be preserved. I'm not even sure that it's that "people prefer the devil they know," as the old saying has it. It's just that it is dangerous to both the authors of the narrative and those subject to it to question the rules, to disturb the "collective illusion" that sustains organizational power structures. For better or for worse, power structures represent "the very fabric of society" and resistance to change should not be underestimated. This is the reason why initiatives meant to introduce organizational change are undertaken superficially and this superficiality is supported with tick-box metrics that show "concrete measurements" of desired changes. People nervy enough to question the rules deeply are swiftly marginalized as the spoilsports who "just don't get it."

So what does it take to be a successful change agent?


  1. Doesn't it take an ability speak in the language of the current paradigm, but with an implacable and infectious drive for another one? The sort of diplomacy you mention, I would have thought, is as instrumental in extricating us from the illusion as in massaging it.

    I've had my mind best changed by those who speak my language, but have been places I haven't, or seen things I don't.

    Other than that, I think, human-wrought change seems to come from those who speak, or write, with such visionary clarity, with such intoxicating authority and insight, that their language becomes the 'killer app.' They have pioneered an inescapable, indispensable way of appropriating the world around us, one whose scope and resolution make the previous one a thin and pitiful alternative. From the moment they speak, change is inevitable.

  2. This is a very good point:
    "I've had my mind best changed by those who speak my language, but have been places I haven't, or seen things I don't."

    But what if your creative urge is questioning the very narrative itself? And when you think about that, consider what happens to a large proportion of the articulate visionaries with "intoxicating authority and insight" who might have done so.

    IMO, it's generally technological changes that lead to economic restructuring of power relationships that open and close ideological doors. I'm no Marxist, but our first needs and instincts are tied to the social relationships required by an economic system with a given technical infrastructure. Ideology lags. So we're now in a networked world with a set of cognitive silos. A more holistic, networked way of thinking is replacing the old categorical silos only because new technology changes the power relations.

  3. Excellent post Amanda! I agree with you and Zero. Diplomacy and speaking the language of the hegemonic are both key to the success of change agents. Perhaps understandably, over time a lot of change agents seem to develop a bad attitude from their frustration and end up getting sidelined or ignored, even by other would-be allies. It takes a long time of consistent, even-keeled pressure to influence change, in government at least.

  4. Thanks for this comment, Laura. I am hoping that natural adjustment through technological changes will make it increasingly easier to name the elephant so that it can be productively addressed to the benefit of all.