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Every so often I read a piece that connects familiar dots in new ways. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? was like that when it was published; Frank put together stuff I knew in ways I hadn’t and brought new clarity to old questions. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed did something similar for higher education. Gianpiero Petriglieri’s recent piece in the Harvard Business Review, “Driving Organizational Change Without Abandoning Tradition,” is the latest to pull off the trick.

Petriglieri outlines the dishearteningly common scenario of an organization that’s stuck, and sort of knows it, bringing in someone from the outside to liven things up, only to ostracize that person “for being and doing exactly what they were hired to be and do.” It’s illustrated with the example of Marinella Soldi at Discovery Networks, but that part is largely beside the point for me. Why is it so common to have organizations bring in people for fresh perspectives only to then beat them down or chase them away for not fitting in?

The usual answers in the moment are around personal failings. If only the new person were more perfect, more convincing, more … anything else. (It’s often expressed as “It’s not what you did—it’s how you did it.” That sentence is so reliably false that it functions as a tell.) But the incumbents are hardly perfect, either; that’s why they correctly felt the need to bring in someone new. And to the extent that the newbie sands down their ideas to fit in, they lose the critical perspective that made them valuable in the first place. As Petriglieri puts it, “It’s not your style, it’s your stance.”

Drawing on the work of Isabel Menzies Lyth, Petriglieri traces much of the resistance to change to the formation of “social defenses” in the organization. “A social defense is a collective, and hardly conscious, effort to preserve traditional features of an organization—legacy structures, strategies, or cultures that make leaders feel proud and their followers feel safe” (emphasis added). Crucially, you don’t overcome a “hardly conscious” set of assumptions through rational argument. “They usually begin as somewhat healthy adaptations … and over time they harden into pathological constraints. What gave people a place now keeps them in their place.” Even when they’ve become dysfunctional, they offer legibility. They’re familiar.

The preference for the familiar can be destructive, all the more so because it’s often unacknowledged. We’ve all had the experience of staying in a job or relationship too long, partially out of denial and partially from fear of the unknown. Organizations are no different. Practices that made sense when the world was different hold lingering internal appeal; for many people, they just feel right. In that context, rational criticisms can feel like attacks. Accurate criticisms feel the worst, and elicit the most virulent responses, because they threaten the sustainability of denial. That tends to put the truth teller in an awkward spot.

The heroine of Petriglieri’s story turned it around when “she stopped trying to prove that she was right.” Petriglieri suggests that “leadership, at its core, is an argument with tradition.” Arguing with tradition requires both understanding it and understanding the needs it developed to address. And arguing with familiarity requires conveying, one way or another, that you’re “one of us.” The root of “familiar” is “family.” Members of a family are allowed to say things to and about one another that nobody outside the family is allowed to say. Once she was able to convince her company that she cared as much as they did about its success, her arguments landed differently. Instead of seeming like external assaults, albeit well-founded ones, they became internal family squabbles. At that point, the company was able to hear her without getting as defensive, and she was able to make the changes that she correctly saw needed to be made.

The idea of a social defense explains a lot. You don’t combat a social defense with a PowerPoint deck. And taking every defense at face value misses the point. When accurate criticisms engender ad hominem (or, in this case, ad feminem) responses, there’s something else going on.

Thank you, Gianpiero Petriglieri, for connecting long-standing dots in a new way. It comes closer to capturing observed reality than the usual theories of change I’ve seen, and it does so without fatalism. Nicely done.

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