30 June 2016

The Devil's Advocate's Rebellion

K was on his way to the conference room.

The C.F.O. had organized the meeting and had sent an invitation to about two dozen managers across the company. When K entered the room only the C.F.O. was there. K greeted him politely and took his usual seat near the far end of the conference table. K liked the C.F.O.; he didn't like meetings.

Slowly other managers trickled in: the Director of H.R., the Director of International Sales. The C.I.O., the C.D.O., the V.P. Marketing. The directors of sales North, South, East, and West, the assistant directors. K didn't pay much attention; he had brought his laptop to do some work. Only when the C.E.O. entered did K notice a momentary hush.

"Thank you all for coming," the C.F.O. said. "The title of today's webinar is Managing Resistance to Change."

The lights dimmed, the projector lit up, and the enthusiastic voice of the presenter came on. He is a somebody who does something somewhere in the mid-West. He is spouting the usual stuff, stuff that anybody would come up with within an hour of sitting back.

K starts looking around: What are other people thinking? Why is everybody taking notes? Shouldn't we all know this already? Doesn't the Manager of Budgeting have a Master's in Change Management? Shouldn't she be giving this presentation?

A slide comes up: "Why do you think employees resist change?"

"Fear." "They feel inadequate." "They just don't want to change." "Fear."

K wonders: But do they really? Do employees really resist change, or is it just a convenient excuse. It implies that everything would be honky dory if it just weren't for those pesky employees. And if they indeed resist change, what changes do they resist? And do they resist change more than managers do? And there is change to the worse, you know.

Berthold Brecht once observed that advocates of progress often have too low an opinion of what already exists.

Another slide: "What is the change strategy most often used in your organization? Four options: Collaborative, informational, attitudinal, political"

It takes fifteen seconds of groupthink to settle on the proper adjective.

K straightens up in his chair. Collaborative? But how do the employees perceive the situation? Would they call it collaborative? Or would they call it political? Or worse, autocratic? How can senior managers be so uncritical of their own perceptions and judgements? Cognitive illusions can be a costly fault in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

K's eyes are met by a smile from the C.D.O. across the table. K raises his eyebrows. Is the C.D.O. going to say something? But the data man doesn't, he never does, just looks away in embarrassment.

K wonders: Should I speak up? In fact, isn't it my duty to speak up, especially when nobody else does?

But why would he? It wasn't even his job. He was the lowest paid manager in the room. And the company has never rewarded a dissenter; quite the opposite. Besides, K has tried in the past, not once but often. And it was as if he had never spoken.

K raises his arm, waits for the chair to notice. Only slowly the room falls silent. K takes a deep breath. He opens his mouth. He is about to speak. But then he remembers, remembers a sentence he once read: Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence.

They might have likely escaped from K's words; but from his silence, never.