Monthly Archives: April 2011

Free Choice? Democracy Anyone?

Mike Klein – Commscrumming from Belgrade (sort of)

“Is Change Democratic?”  That was the question I spoke to in response to an invitation by the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) to speak at a seminar on change communication at the University of Belgrade in Serbia last week.

Now, being Serbia, a nation with a tenuous democratic history and double digit unemployment, a majority didn’t buy the argument.  “People don’t have a choice,” the dissenting majority said, perhaps failing to comprehend the idea that very few workers are actually hauled into their offices and chained to their desks.

But while the idea that acceptance of – or resistance to – organisational change is a function of free choice may be hard for Serbs to accept doesn’t make it any less real or powerful.  Indeed, I think the question of acknowledging the role of free choice is the single most fundamental question facing business communicators today.

Ignoring the centrality of employee choice, further, may well be the bad seed that turns the 70% of change initiatives that fail into dust, leaving them defeated rather than disintegrated.  Recognising the centrality of free choice, in turn, may well leave us with a new suite of approaches, and even refreshments to traditional tools like cascades, roadshows and newsletters.

The time has come to tackle this question head on – is free choice at the root of all organisational behaviour?  And if do, to what extent are organisations more democratic than they appear?

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Bayswater

Pipping Dang Ray to the post – “It depends.”

Different people, different cultures, different organisations and types of organisations will all have differing degrees of expectation and behaviour in terms of “free choice”.  In the one hand many might see employment as a privilege and not a right (North America?) – “Like it or lump it, vote with your feet.”  Others, for example more Socialised countries (Germany? Scandinavia?) might see employment as more part of the social contract – “This is my job, my right, you will listen to me.”

I think the more interesting question is the second one – are organisations more democratic than they appear.  We’ve all seen “listening by numbers” with surveys and focus groups and feedback – and then nothing happens or the leaders do what they planned anyway.  We’ve also seen where genuine employee engagement and personal implication in organisational change has resulted in significant improvement in culture, systems and processes.

Another interesting thought is to look at Partnerships (i.e. professional services and law firms).  I have a lot of experience in these environments and can tell you with confidence and certainty – when it comes to driving change to improve business performance, democracy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, brother.

Perhaps at the root of all this is “intent” – one of your favourite topics recently.  Sometimes change has to happen and it doesn’t matter whether the employee has input or not.  Other times it’s needed.

Arguably, however, deeply embedded norms and cultural artefacts can result in behaviours that have little to do with free will and choice – to what degree can you REALLY “be yourself” at work?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard in Delft

It would be a whole lot easier to implement change if change was less democratic and more dictatorial, wouldn’t it? As much as I like to think that among an organisation of mature citizens, the appetite for change ( and success of it ) be would determined by some kind of invisible mass judgement that kind of magically and systemically steers the best path forward … that’s just not always the case. Of course Kevin, you’re right, different levels of democracy exist in different places, I suppose that my tuppence on this is this… let’s not assume that more is better.

Democracy does save an organisation from making bombastic royal-size screw ups, but there are a whole load of people who can sustain their own skewed perspectives without being led otherwise if they can have a voice in preventing change that move against their agenda or view.

Dan Gray – CommScrum London

Indeed, KK (and Lindsay), you’ve pipped me to the post!

As CommScrum’s “anorak-in-residence” I find myself reaching once more to situational leadership theory and – in particular – Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles, which would tend to suggest that, at least when radical change is in the offing, a democratic approach is probably a poor choice.

I’d also point to a model from Dunphy and Stace, which I think frames things rather more concretely. They also suggest a contingency approach to change implementation, ultimately boiling down to the assessment of three factors:

  • The nature of the change (incremental or transformative)
  • The time available to make the change (time/no time for participation), and
  • The degree of support that already exists among key interest groups

Bottom line, if time is available and key interest groups support the change, then by all means drink deeply from the well of more collaborative and consultative models – “participative evolution” and “charismatic transformation” (which essentially map on to Goleman’s “democratic” and “visionary” styles). But when the brown stuff’s about to hit the whirly thing, that’s a different matter.

Command and control ain’t always wrong, ‘kay. It’s just wrong if that’s the only style in your locker.