The myths and ethics of change

Feet in the sea

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” -Heraclitus

The number of books and articles about change and culture management that have been written over the past century is vast, yet unlike advancements in medicine and technology over the same period of time, we seem to have made very little progress towards ‘getting it right’.


On the surface it might seem that we have come a long way from the industrial revolution and the Scientific Management techniques espoused by Frederick Taylor, whereby labour techniques were studied in order to find the best possible way, and then synthesised across the organisation to maximise efficiency. The ends of organisations have not changed, only the means by which they try and achieve them. All management is about getting the most out of employees at all times with the aim of increasing production or revenue (usually both) for minimum cost. One lesson that organisations have learned over the years is that it is no longer enough just to tell your staff what to do and expect them to perform to their maximum. You have to convinced them using other means, which is how Human Resource Management (HRM) came about. HRM is equally about controlling the workforce, it just does it using human relationships rather than ignoring them as Taylorism did.


Incidentally, I have only recently realised this lesson applies in parenting too. No matter how much I think it should be so, it is not enough for me to just tell my children what to do an expect them to do it just because I am their mother. If I want to get them to do what I want I have to find ways to engage their cooperation, by negotiation, empathy and, yes, sometimes, bribery. The difference between parenting and management is that it is more likely that I as a parent know better than my children about what is right and safe for them. I am more emotionally developed than they, and I have a better understanding of consequences and social norms. It is generally accepted that there are good reasons why I hold power over my children, and it is also my responsibility not to abuse that power.


The relationships between management and employees is not quite as clear. The assumptions of power are not the same; management may not always know better, they may not be more emotionally intelligent and they do not always grasp the reality of consequences. But, as in parenting, management must be ethically considerate in wielding the power they have, especially when it comes to change and culture management.


The unchanging myth of change

It is a regularly espoused cliché that we live in times of unprecedented change, a claim which has been made in newspaper articles and management books for at least the past 100 years, and one that neglects events such as two World Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of major empires. How can one possibly quantify and verify such a claim anyway? Though seemingly a trivial point it is important, as such a claim is usually a precursor to the imposition of organisational change; part of the process of creating “change readiness” (Amenakis et al., 1993). The usual coda to the above claim, is that organisations need to change too, in order to fit in with the mythological ever changing environment. On the surface this seems logical, but Grey (2009) questions this very assumption. He suggests that to say organisations need to change to adapt to their environment is to ignore the fact that organisations are part of the environment. He says “…as an organization changes, it contributes to the rationale for change in other organizations, which in turn provide a rationale for change in the original environment” (pp 98).


Grey makes two other good points against the assumption that change is necessary. The first, in relation to the above is that with change there are always unintended consequences. Many change efforts are in fact mopping up problems from the last management’s change action; as such change becomes a cycle through various management structures and styles, of which there are only so many permutations so you eventually come back to where you started. The second point is that improving your organisation to provide a better product/service does not always necessarily lead to increased profits, because consumers are not always rational decision makers and do not always make choices based on the best product or service, but on often on other factors such as convenience, habit or principle.


Change is futile

Let’s assume that your organisation has ignored the fact that change is not completely necessary, or that it is something that is likely to have be engineered by its own actions. How do you go about making those changes? Well, lucky for you Amazon lists 3,822 books under change management, thousands of academics, management consultants and self appointed gurus all telling you how it is done, all essentially delivering the same message just with a different metaphor such a cheese, or hats or some kind of animal. Some of them will preface their offering with the nugget that most change programmes fail. Many studies and observers do in fact support this claim (Beer and Nohria, 2000, Kotter, 1995, Gilmore et al, 1997). But instead of questioning the ethics of imposing such large scale disruptions, which history tells us are inevitably doomed to failure, they tell you how their particular change process will be the one, the one that will do what others have failed to do before it. Usually the reasons for failure in the past are linked to what is known as ‘resistance to change’ and it is usually the employee’s fault. Even if it is recognised that management mishandled change, employee resistance is ultimately the nail in the change coffin.


Resistance is futile

This demonisation of employees, resistors in particular, is all too common in the change literature (Thomas and Hardy, 2011). Change is described in the language of the battlefield, and methods are proposed to suppress or overcome resistance. Discussion in this manner not only legitimises the imbalance of power between the change agent (the Changer, usually management) and the change recipient (usually core employees) but also is insensitive to the thought processes behind the alleged ‘resistance’. In fact one seemingly respectable academic textbook on change management says “Why do people resist change? Quite simply because they fear the unknown and are comforted by the familiar.” (Paton and McCalman, 2000, pp 47). If there is one thing I have learned on this journey it is that the reasons people do not change are not simple.


Recently, the academic literature has begun to celebrate resistance, recognising it as a positive force. Resistance can challenge the assumptions of change agents for the better (Ford and Ford, 2009),and produce new ideas. Resistors often foresee unintended consequences of change. However, even in these cases, the balance of power and control still resides with the change agent, and legitimate arguments against change are often dismissed when the complainant can offer no alternative solution. Thomas and Hardy (2011) argue that change should be viewed in the context of power relations. Power cannot exist without resistance. In their case studies of organisational changes they explore power and resistance and note how resistance crosses hierarchies, and other boundaries. Resistors can become allies and change agents themselves.


Even more insidious than the demonisation of change resistors, is the effort to change and manage culture in organisations. It is no longer enough for employees to come in to work and do their job, they must now share the values and culture of the organisation. That culture and values are fairly resistant to change should not stop us questioning the ethics of trying to do so. Diversity of cultures and values are essential to the success of knowledge-based organisations, and homogenisation risks group think and the stifling of innovation.


The cult of culture change

Values reflect our core beliefs. To attempt to alter those fundamental beliefs of employees in the name of increasing revenue or productivity seems futile at best and cult-like at worst. Woodall (1996) says “culture management might not be an exercise in deception and manipulation, but a self-deluding fantasy too.” (pp 37) The question of boundaries is commonly discussed with reference to home/work life, but more thought needs to be given to the boundaries of one’s inner life. Woodall also details further ethical considerations in the culture change process such as, who decides what the ‘right’ culture and values are, the self esteem implications of being told what you use to think and used to do (probably imposed by the last management) are now wrong and threat to the right to hold different values.


So, what to do? Do we just leave business to stagnate or decline if change doesn’t work? Will management consultants just hold up their hands and say “it’s doesn’t work, and it’s a little bit unethical to try anyway”? No, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. What most of the studies say is not that change rarely works, but that change management programmes rarely work. That is not to say that organisations will not change organically. Nor is it realistic to suppose directed change will or should disappear. Individual employees might change organically, or they might not. They may not have the strategic vision for effective that higher leaders (allegedly) have. However, as Thomas and Hardy (2011) suggest, we should stop thinking about change in terms of change agents, change recipients and change resistors. We should understand change in relation to power, and see change as part of a network of relationships. We shouldn’t just engage employees in change because we think it will make them less resistant, we should see employees as an inextricable part of the change process; at the heart of it, not a step in it.

Heart of change

Organisations that want to engage in culture and value change must enable an internal dialogue to discuss what such values might be and their relationship with wider societal values. “Culture management that disregards this in favour of a one-sided commitment is in denial of the very thing it pursues – a sense of community and belonging” (Woodall, 1996, pp 36).

We should also be wary of what the consultants and academics have to say about change, for if there was one process that worked for everyone, by definition we would no longer need their services. I don’t have any better solution to the situation I’m afraid, but, as in the demonisation and celebration of ‘resistors’ that doesn’t mean my complaints aren’t valid!



Amenakis, A. A., Harris, S. G., & Mossholder, K. W. (1993) Creating Readiness for Organizational Change Human Relations June 1993 46: 681-703

Beer, M. and Nohria. N (2000). Cracking the code of change. Harvard Business Review (May-June): 133-141.

Gilmore, T., Shea, G. and Useem, M. (1997). Side effects of corporate cultural transformations. Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 33(2), 174-189.

Grey, C (2009). A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organizations. London: Sage.

Kotter, J. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 23, 49-57

Paton, R. A. and McCalman, J. (2001). Change Management: A guide to effective implementation. London: Sage.

Thomas, R. and Hardy, C. (2011). Reframing resistance to organizational change. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 27, 322-331.

Woodall, J. (1996). Managing culture change: can it ever be ethical? Personnel Review, 25, 26-40.

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One thought on “The myths and ethics of change

  1. Interesting reflective piece. Agree with the point that change has to be understood in relation to power and as part of a network of relationships. It’s the power and relationships which make things messy and less linear. For me a key part of creating change is linked to reflection and having space to question. Is questioning – resistance? Is resistance – questioning? Without questioning where would democracy be? I stray a little – but my vote is for co-creating change through messiness!

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