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Managing people in an organization has certain congruence with managing people with problems in living. In both cases, there is a requirement to get the personal preferences of the individuals involved compatible with a specific, defined set of assumptions which the manager believes will be beneficial to both the individual and the organization or society. And in both cases, the critical assumption underlying the need for change is that the learning environment [culture] has somehow created and maintained thoughts that are now considered to be incompatible with the desired culture. Osborne & Plastrik [1997] have done a wonderful job in Banishing Bureaucracy of outlining culture change, which we have accessed here for our own purposes. We have intertwined Baar’s Cognitive Theory of Consciousness as well.

Osborne & Plastrik start off by telling us that changing an organization’s culture is not a science. This is not because there are not structures from cognitive and behavioral science that can be utilized, but rather because culture is so pervasive and complex. Further, cultures are based on nonconscious mental contexts that are held by a group at varying levels of coherence. Within every culture their are established presuppositions which tend to become unconscious. Whatever we believe with absolute certainty we tend to take for granted. We lose sight of the fact that alternatives to our stable presuppositions can even be entertained.

Thus a culture is a many faceted perspective, perhaps best seen as a set of control mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, instructions, which are the principal bases for the specificity of behavior and an essential condition for governing it. Since these variables have generally become repetitious and habitual, they have become nonconscious metal contexts, which for people who are committed to it, there becomes an inability to consciously think consistently of the alternatives to their own, stable presuppositions. It is important to note that the culture in an organization is not necessarily the organization’s plans, recipes, rules and instructions, but those informal plans, recipes, rules and instructions which form in response to the organizational system.

The traditional means for structuring experience was the myth, a term deriving from the Greek mythos, meaning “word” in the sense that it is a definitive statement on the subject. To give someone the “word”, even today is to “show them the ropes” or tell them how events and incidents occur within the context of this environment. A myth, then was an authoritative account of the facts that was not to be questioned, no matter how strange it may seem. Myths need be neither true nor false, just useful constructs for explaining the nature of an experience. Such myths were the “common knowledge” of various cultures and helped naive people understand the nature of the world. One of the main uses of myths was to provide an explanation of how real world events work. People using myths made no pretensions to truth, rather they were stating – “this is the way we do things around here”. It is somehow comforting at times of crisis to have a belief system that provides some explanation for what would otherwise seem a capricious event. In this same sense, ‘the way we do things around here’, the mythos culture if you will may be quite different from the logos culture [logical or formal culture] of the organization.

A paradigm is a set of assumptions about the nature of reality. Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion in 1962, with the publication of his book the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The scientific paradigms he described were highly rational: they had explicit rules, recorded in scientific literature. Cultural paradigms are different: they are often unwritten, unspoken, even unconscious. A cultural paradigm is like an identity: it is so much a part of each of us that we are not even aware of it. If someone asked us to write down the basic assumptions of our cultural paradigms, few of us could do it. And yet we could not operate without them. Kuhn argued that “something like a paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself. What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.”

Thus the cognitive mental contexts described by Baar are the parcels or quanta that support the cultural paradigm and the quanta, in various combinations, predispose us to acting in certain ways. In conceptual contexts, we can at times make a quanta consciously accessible, and change it. The new conceptual context then begins to shape the interpretation of observations. Since new paradigms, which are made up of many quanta are born from old ones, they ordinarily incorporate much of the vocabulary and apparatus, both conceptual and manipulative, that the traditional paradigm had previously employed. But they seldom employ these borrowed elements in quite the traditional way. Within the new paradigm, old terms, concepts and experiments fall into new relationships with the other.

Communication across the revolutionary divide is inevitably partial. Both parties are looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But in some areas they see different things, and they seem them in different relations one to the other. Kuhn calls this phenomenon ‘the incommensurability of competing paradigms’. Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and natural experience.

Paradigms are conceptual contexts. If one tried to make a paradigm conscious, one could only make one aspect of it conscious at any one time because of the limited capacity of consciousness. But typically paradigm-differences between two groups of scientists involves not just one, but many different aspects of the mental framework simultaneously.

For persons within a culture change understanding either occurs as an epiphany; a spiritual experience, or becomes quite difficult to understand causing anxiety and uncertainty. Further increase of exposure results in still more hesitation and confusion until finally, and sometimes quite suddenly many begin to produce some of the correct identifications without hesitation. This is because new quanta have now become, through repetition and habituation, no longer novel, but a nonconscious context. A few people, however, will never be able to make the requisite adjustments of their contexts and the people who then failed often experienced acute personal distress.

To change a culture, you have to change paradigms.

According to Osborne and Plastrik, the first thing you have to do is get people to let go of their old assumptions. In science, the key is what Kuhn calls “anomalies” – problems the old paradigm cannot solve, realities it cannot explain, facts it cannot admit to be true. As these anomalies pile up, people begin to lose faith in the old paradigm. Thus the manager needs to develop a change strategy that will:

  • introduce anomalies and help people to perceive them
  • provide a clearly defined new paradigm
  • build faith in the new paradigm
  • help people let go of the old paradigm
  • give people time in the neutral zone
  • give people touchstones
  • provide a safety net

This requires that a whole plan be implemented at once. People begin to let go of their old paradigms when they run into experiences, facts, and feelings that cannot be explained by the old set of assumptions. These anomalies provoke “dissonance” – conflicts between what one has experienced and what one knows to be possible. Often people cope by refusing to see the anomalies. When anomalies appear, they immediately define them as something else. If they are able to retreat to another part of the organization and find support for their resistance, it is unlikely that the culture will ever change in the direction that management has chosen. [Though it will change in response to the new order.]

To break through this paradigm blindness, you must not only introduce anomalies into the culture, you must actively help people perceive them for what they are. As they begin to experience the resulting dissonance, they will be uncomfortable. Asking people to give up their most basic assumptions about life is like asking them to play a new game without knowing the rules – a game that will determine whether they have a job, how much they earn, and what their colleagues think of them.

Hence you must give them a new set of rules. You must provide a new way of understanding the anomalies – they can embrace. They will not be able to tolerate the ambiguity for very long: they will either make the leap or retreat into their old paradigm.

Osborne and Plastrik liken it to the trapeze artist, there must be no ambiguity about there being a specific time and place to land when s/he lets go of the bar. Every paradigm shift is ultimately a leap of faith and for those who have faith only in the old culture, there is likely to be a great deal of anxiety about who to trust and where they will land. To build people’s faith in a new culture, you must first earn their trust. None of us put our faith in people we don’t trust. You must then prove to them that others who have made the leap before them have flourished, and to assure them that they too will flourish in the new culture. A paradigm shift begins with an ending. It begins when people let go of their former worldview – a frightening process that creates much of the resistance to change.

You must accept the fact that it will take time before people fully internalize the new paradigm. It’s the limbo between the old sense of identify and the new. It is a time when the old way is gone and the new doesn’t feel comfortable yet. People make the new beginning only if they have first made an ending and spent some time in the neutral zone. And yet in some apparent disagreement with Osborne and Plastrik, you must also make it untenable to continue holding onto the old bar. The trapeze artist of our analogy is likely to take a greater risk to leap to the new bar, if s/he is aware that the old bar is disappearing. But being aware that the old culture [bar] is gone and not being able to see the new culture [bar] is ‘being between a rock and a hard place’. It is a dilemma without any apparent answer. Managers who seek to change cultures want the new place to be very apparent. And so Osborne and Plastrik suggest that you give them touchstones – guidelines and reference points they can hold onto as anchors as they struggle.

What this means is that in a transformation of culture, the management must be prepared to articulate the new culture completely and to change the world abruptly. This is not a transition . A transition would change pieces and not the whole. An abrupt change requires that their be plans, recipes, rules, instructions, which are the principal bases for the specificity of behavior and an essential condition for governing it. Change is a time of uncertainty. Uncertainty causes anxiety. Managers limit uncertainty not by ‘easing into a new program’, but by being explicit about expectations. Like them or not, knowing the new expectations and how they will be measured relieves uncertainty, and for most diminishes anxiety.

Osborne and Plastrik have more to say on cultural change which should be explored not only by public, but private managers as well. Additionally, the understanding of the workings of thought on emotion and behavior is important knowledge for all managers and articles such as Reconstructing Judgement will help you understand how to better manage people in all types of organizational situations.