Culture Change – Time To Throw Away The Carrot And Stick

carrot and stickThis post explores alternatives to the behaviourist-informed practices that currently hold sway as many organisations attempt to change their cultures.

After writing about Gestalt as an approach to personal development, I’ve also been reflecting on how it offers solutions to the challenges facing many of our organisations. Flowing from what seems to be an endless trail of private and public sector scandals, these challenges include displays of unethical behaviour, failures in governance regimes, the need for strategic agility and, associated with these, resistance to culture change.

It is through culture change that most commentators believe we will create more ethically minded and agile organisations. I agree, but this is not going to come about easily, or quickly if current ‘best practice’ culture change methods are utilised. I would argue that developing ‘mindfulness’ in organisations, is a much better starting point. This post explains what it is, why it matters and how we might approach it.

Behaviourist-informed practices don’t cut it 

Let’s start with my assertion that current ‘best practice’ approaches to culture change don’t cut it. To put it bluntly, decades of behaviourist-informed performance management practices have failed. The carrot and stick approaches to managing performance through shaping culture simply don’t work, certainly not in the timescales needed in our more frantic, more connected economies. This suggests to me we need alternative approaches to ‘shaping behaviours’, ‘managing people’, and ‘driving change’. What about ‘developing self-eficacy’, ‘enabling people’, and ‘encouraging experimentation’?

These alternatives are where Gestalt practices are focused. I’m increasingly drawn to the conclusion that we need to more seriously consider interventions designed with Gestalt as an underpinning area of theory and practice. My experience and the case study literature indicate these alternative practices yield results where more traditional performance management, change management or coaching approaches fail.

Gestalt practices for the individual

To unwrap my thinking, let’s start with a brief exploration of what Gestalt looks like in a personal development setting. I will then extrapolate to the level of the organisation.

I wrote in my personal development post about “how powerful Gestalt approaches to personal and group change can be, but also how paradoxical they can at first seem”. I observed that “in practical terms, Gestalt facilitation or coaching leads to exercises that focus on…feeling more comfortable with ourselves as we are, warts and all, and relaxing into a comfortable sense of self. This comfort reduces anxiety, strengthens self-confidence and reduces the fear of what is new. It is about relaxing into the change once we have a firm grasp of and feel secure with, our current reality”. This firm grasp and the associated security flow from the development of ‘mindfulness’.

I added in my previous post that “focusing on ‘what you are’ and not ‘what you want to be’ in order to change, is…a paradox.” Perceived difficulties in negotiating this paradox are possibly why the vast majority of organisations do not currently compliment their performance management practices with a Gestalt approach to developing individuals and shaping their cultures. It may also be that organisations, and in particular their HR functions, are unaware of Gestalt as a field and that Gestalt practitioners are not marketing themselves sufficiently well enough. Either way, the old-school behaviourists still hold sway.

Gestalt practices for the organisation

So, given the impact Gestalt can have at the level of the individual, what can Gestalt-informed interventions do at the organisation level? In practical terms, Gestalt OD interventions have at their core the exact same aims as at the level of the individual. These are to facilitate an improvement in ‘mindfulness¹’. For the individual, this is an improved sense of self. For the organisation, this ‘self’ is reflected in its culture. It is therefore the aim of Gestalt OD to facilitate mindfulness to relationships, relating and resultant cultures.

As the organisation becomes more mindful of its patterns of relating, changes to these patterns become more natural and resistance to culture change reduces. Gestalt OD enables a more organic approach to culture change as the process of inquiry into culture allows new culture to emerge. This is in contrast to deciding what the culture should look like, then ‘shaping behaviours’ to fit².

“inquiry into culture allows new culture to emerge”

Critics would argue that this emergent culture might not be what the organisation needs. I would argue, that whilst the culture change brought about might not exactly match the pre-populated frameworks, it is actually more likely to be both more useful to achieving the aims of the organisation and reflective of the commercial, political and stakeholder realities of organisational life. In fact, I would suggest that pre-populated culture frameworks of any kind (culture, values, behaviours, etc.) are probably a waste of time.

“pre-populated culture frameworks … are probably a waste of time”

Isn’t it better to engage in inquiry and allow an exploration of mindfulness and what it is to be ethical and agile to seed the beginnings of a new, more appropriate culture? Continuing this inquiry as a part of everyday life in the organisation then allows for a natural evolution of the culture through a continuous ‘disturbing³’ of the system. This ongoing disturbance prevents a regression into old ways or the entrenchment of new ways  that work for the short-term, but are quickly in need of revision as contexts change.

The efficiency of Gestalt practices carried out “on the job”

As well as this more organic approach to culture change, we also see an inherent efficiency in Gestalt OD. Many would argue (and I agree) that a sense of self for the individual is mainly (but not exclusively) to be found when this self is reflected through relationship; in others words, in community. So, supporting individuals in organisations might best be facilitated through inquiry into the communities they are part of and the cultures their patterns of relating create. This can be done, for the most part, on the job. 

This inquiry then, supports development of both the individual and the organisation. More accurately, through it’s inquiry into individual sense-making and community, Gestalt OD provides a method for addressing the complexities of organisational life, complexities that current ‘best practice’ change management methods simply don’t recognise.

Creating ethically-minded, agile organisations

This brings us full circle to the challenges mentioned at the beginning of this post. I stated that most commentators believe culture change lies at the heart of creating more ‘ethically minded’ and agile organisations. I also made a bold statement that current best practice approaches to culture change are flawed. These approaches would have us creating new visions, values and competency frameworks in support of performance managing a change in individual behaviours and thus a change to our cultures. I have yet to see these deliver tangible results, certainly not in the time scales that could be considered anywhere near ‘agile’.

As an alternative, I’ve argued that developing ‘mindfulness’ through Gestalt-inspired interventions, is a much better starting point. I’ve stated that culture change will flow organically from this mindfulness. My experience tells me this mindfulness and subsequent culture change can be brought about much more quickly than through the linear, behaviourist-inspired change processes utilised in most organisations today. Also, mindfulness helps develop the confidence and efficacy, at both the individual and organisation level, that is the base for the much-needed agility organisations are crying out for.

Having said all this, I don’t believe we will be throwing out the carrot and stick anytime soon. There is a place for these methods in our organisations but they need to be used more sparingly. They need to be used with an improved awareness to the negative impacts they can have.  They also need to be used alongside, not instead of, methods that develop grounded individuals, relating mindfully through strong communities.

¹This is not the same ‘mindfulness’ generated through meditation alone. The mindfulness referred to here is less about emptying the mind and more about ‘interfering with the interference’ (Barber 2012) that prevents us experiencing ourselves and others from a ‘grounded’ perspective. It involves purposeful reflection, dialogue and, if called for, making a noise and getting off our backsides and moving about. Meditation could be involved, but not necessarily.
²And when the culture change fails to materialise as behaviours do not change, the last resort of ‘if you can’t change the people, change the people’ can hopefully be called upon less often.
³Reference to the observation that “You can never direct a living system. You can only disturb it.” (Maturana & Varela 1992).

 References and recommended reading:
Barber, P. (2012) Facilitating Change in Groups and Teams: A Gestalt Approach to Mindfulness. Libri, Faringdon.
Bushe, G.R., & Marshak, R. J. (2009) Revisioning Organization Development: Diagnostic and Dialogic Premises and Patterns of Practice. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Vol. 45, No. 3, pp 348–368.
Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J (1992) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Shambhala, Boston.
Shaw, P. (2007) Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change. Routledge, London.

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