The cost of high identification
With the summer break providing me with a little more reading time, I’ve recently turned my attention to the book “The rainmaker effect”. The book is written by professor and organisational consultant, Stefan Kühl, who criticises the paradigm of the learning organisation. From his perspective, a stable organisation in the face of permanent change is an illusion. The same holds true for the idea that there is no longer any need for “classical” change programs. While elaborating on his point of view, he also provides tangible, practical and theoretical insights into the various organisational concepts. A summary of the book is only available in German but I definitely recommend reading the book itself, even if my understanding of a learning organisation divert from Stefan’s on quite a few occasions.
I would especially like to focus on one topic, “identification”, so as not to take up too much of your summer.
Identification, in the sense of employees strongly identifying with the company they work for, is a core theme of the learning organisation and most other “new” organisational concepts. According to Kühl, this identification leads to more innovation and efficiency, reduces the need for control and improves retention, especially in times of change.
On the other hand, the organisation becomes less flexible and open to fundamental change. This may sound surprising at first but perhaps not when you give it a moment’s thought. Once I identify with something, I am deeply convinced of it. If I have to change, I need to change my convictions, my substance, my core values. This change is profound.
Kühl thus summarises in just a few words a topic that I encounter again and again – in start-ups, in small and medium-sized businesses, in social organisations; each with different connotations but the same “basic mood”. Organisations with strong employee identification are very open and very active when it comes to making changes that support their basic convictions. People are proactively involved with their full personality, they want to achieve something for themselves, and they want to develop.
But this identification also comes at a cost. If change threatens (or is perceived to threaten) elements of the identification, the organisation and its employees become rigid, they close down, turn aggressive – a major breaking point is just around the corner. In addition early signals indicating a need of change are ignored and discussions are stopped before they start. Dynamic and flexible becomes stubborn and rigid.
There is probably no way to avoid this dilemma. However, it is important to become aware of the problem so you are well-placed to assess, respond to or even prevent the problem – for example at the beginning of a journey when you are looking to create identification. Which topics would we rather not use for identification, because we might want, or indeed be forced, to change them later? What aspects should the employees explicitly NOT identify with? Which blind spots can arise because certain questions are not “allowed” to be asked?
Alternatively, awareness can be of help when managing the change process. What are the actual pillars of identification? Where does the change process challenge this identification? Can we set up or communicate the change differently so that the core conviction is not questioned? Where do we have to brace ourselves for discord or disruption because the company simply will not work without a new conviction?
Sometimes people say casually: “they can’t let go of the old”. But it is seldom considered that the new can soon become just as much of an obstacle as “the old”.
How do you see things? Have you already observed this? Is this old wine in new bottles or really something to think about? Which “identifications” can unintentionally become an obstacle to change in your organisation?