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Change and Social Defenses
I was reading a case study by Giancarlo Petriglieri about Marinella Soldi, trying to make significant changes in a media company’s operating model as a new executive, and how she encountered pushback, even when other executives agreed with the direction of the proposed changes. Petriglieri explains the setup:
Your company needs transformation? Pick a leader unencumbered by tradition. You want a business to do something different? Let someone different lead it. Hiring a talented disruptor is many executives’ solution to the problem of keeping up with, and staying ahead of, change. In business, however, sound logic is no guarantee of success. People have feelings too, especially when change is involved, and left unattended, those feelings can stymie even the most talented leaders and sensible plans.
And what sort of feelings are we talking about? What was blocking real buy-in on her proposed changes?
There is a large body of research on the psychodynamics of resistance to change. Isabel Menzies coined the term ‘social defenses’ (actually, ‘social defences’) in a study of a British training hospital, where deep resistance to changes in nurses’ scheduling and operations was leading to a crisis situation.
Menzies identified the deep and seemingly immovable barrier to needed change:
In developing a structure, culture, and mode of functioning, a social organization is influenced by a number of interacting factors, crucial among which are its primary task, including such environmental relationships and pressures as that involves; the technologies available for performing the task; and the needs of the members of the organization for social and psychological satisfaction, and, above all, for support in the task of dealing with anxiety.
Potential changes in operations can arouse fears that the current mechanisms embodied in social relations and processes for coping will break down, which could lead to potential chaos.
As Menzies elaborates:
The needs of the members of the organization to use it in the struggle against anxiety leads to the development of socially structured defence mechanisms, which appear as elements in the structure, culture, and mode of functioning of the organization.
An important aspect of such socially structured defence mechanisms is
an attempt by individuals to externalize and give substance in objective reality to their characteristic psychic defence mechanisms. A social defence system develops over time as the result of collusive interaction and agreement, often unconscious, between members of the organization as to what form it shall take. The socially structured defence mechanisms then tend to become an aspect of external reality with which old and new members of the institution must come to terms.
This next quote will sound familiar to anyone who has been involved in change initiatives:
Change is inevitably to some extent an excursion into the unknown. It implies a commitment to future events that are not entirely predictable and to their consequences, and inevitably provokes doubt and anxiety. Any significant change within a social system implies changes in existing social relationship and in social structure. It follows that any significant social change implies a change in the operation of the social system as a defence system. While this change is proceeding, i.e. while social defences are being re-structured, anxiety is likely to be more open and intense. Jaques (1955) has stressed that resistance to social change can be better understood if it is seen as the resistance of groups of people unconsciously clinging to existing institutions because changes threaten existing social defences against deep and intense anxieties.
We have all read the posters about the joys of embracing the unknown. However, the nature of social defenses means that the organization has developed deep and shared mechanisms to avoid anxieties that are a consequence of the ‘primary task’ of an organization.
Those who advocate changes that might threaten those defense mechanisms are rejected like a virus stimulates an immune response. Again, Menzies:
Recommendations or plans for change that seem highly appropriate from a rational point of view are ignored, or do not work in practice. One difficulty seems to be that they do not sufficiently take into account the common anxieties and the social defences in the institution concerned, nor provide for the therapeutic handling of the situation as change takes place. Jaques (1955) states that ‘effective social change is likely to require analysis of the common anxieties and unconscious collusions underlying the social defences determining phantasy social relationships’.
So, dealing with organizational change means undertaking actual psychological work, not just metaphorically, either.
In the case of the British hospital, the stress involved with nursing work had led to structural mechanisms to help the nursing staff cope with the immediate anxieties surrounding patient care. However, the nursing and hospital staff collectively could not agree to any substantive changes that could potentially improve the serious patient care problems: partly because of costs associated with increased staffing, but also the fear among the nurses that any changes would lead to the undoing of even the fragile and incomplete coping with stress that the current system afforded. They were stuck.
In Soldi’s case at the media company, she eventually found the source of the company’s anxieties around change. The cultural milieu was layered with concerns that a new change agent might disrupt the organization’s focus on high-quality content because they weren’t certain that she deeply cared for the industry.
Petriglieri lays out how she gained their trust:
Marinella Soldi began to turn things around at an executive meeting when, as she put it, she stopped trying to prove that she was right and started showing that she cared about the business as much as they did — that is why she was proposing a new way of going about it. Just like the CEO and his team, she loved the media industry. Like them, she worked to inform and entertain audiences with great content, and to make money along the way. Everything she proposed was a way to keep that intent alive — reaching new audiences in new ways, developing content that suited them best, generating new revenue streams. She was as devoted as anyone to a content-driven, audience-centric, media business. She cared.
And as her colleagues recognized that care, their need to uphold a defensive tradition dropped. They saw that her changes were not threats, but solutions. She got approval for her plan.
Soldi managed to get the company unstuck, but if she hadn’t understood the collective anxieties of the organization she wouldn’t have realized what the sticking point was. However, many change agents are subverted by entrenched thinking in the organizations they were hired to change by becoming enmeshed in the cultural webs of social defenses themselves. Soldi sidestepped that pitfall.
Menzies knew the sticking point, but could never overcome the collective anxieties that had built such formidable social defenses at the hospital she studied.
Being a change agent is a chancy thing, and all the care and insight in the world might not be enough to overcome defenses against anxiety. It’s more like trench warfare, or psychoanalysis, than simply creating rational arguments for necessary change.