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Why coercion doesn’t work

More about Martin Grimshaw

Written by: Martin Grimshaw

Tuesday 21 July 15, Victoria, London: Shift, a participant-led Open Space event
Why aren’t organisations shifting?

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” Peter Senge

As any parent knows, as soon as a child starts to develop a sense of identity, they start to assert their boundaries and free will by saying No.

Human nature being what it is, we have an innate hardwired resistance to change and to being told what to do, that starts as children and generally lingers from thereon. Attempts to creatively and positively work with this phenomenon can be seen in alternative education, where teaching at pupils is replaced by self-led learning, encouraging autonomy and curiosity.

Achieving Buy-in

In the workplace getting others to do what is wanted of them, and getting them to engage, care and want it, is known as ‘achieving buy-in.’ It is the classic and everyday challenge faced by leadership and management trying to get staff to do stuff, and at its worst it feels like coercion. Attempts to lead organisational change are often met with cultural inertia.

Throwing Unconscious Spanners

I remember sitting in a team meeting many years ago and witnessing something that led to a profound insight that has stayed with me ever since. A member of staff, arms crossed and a look of consternation on her face, responded to the manager with something like, ‘Well, I never did really agree with that strategy we initiated fours ago.’

That strategy was the manager’s, introduced upon staff who all nodded along and set about it with varying degrees of compliance, enthusiasm, disgruntlement or sabotage depending on how much they quietly thought it was a good or bad idea. That strategy probably worked to some extent without really catching fire, despite staff being paid to do what they are told and annual performance appraisals.

I have seen this pattern repeated over and over. In the workplace, we commonly consciously or unconsciously throw spanners in the works of someone else’s well laid plan.

Or as a friend told me recently, “I got an F in GCSE electronics because my project was made entirely of wood.” Which neatly illustrates to me the fallacy and depressing failings of coercive education.

Consent is sexy, as they say

“The ultimate weapon has always existed. Every man, every woman, and every child owns it. It’s the ability to say No and take the consequences.” It is what distinguishes us from robots.
Hagbard Celine, The Illuminatus! Triology, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. 

Rather than attempting to ‘achieve buy-in’, why not allow people to solve problems and draw up their own action plans? People tend to find solutions that they have helped to co-create more exciting, and once genuine or even enthusiastic consent has been reached, tend to set about the task with gusto. Participation doesn’t just work, it is more effective in the long run, and if harnessed well then multiple view points can lead to smarter decisions. Allowing people to set their own pace and write their own story, helps to dissolve change fatigue so common in organisations, where staff might be under a constant barrage of brilliant new ideas, at the mercy of merry-go-round leadership and consultants.

Barriers and the Bottom-up Manifesto

There are barriers too. We are habituated into patterns of behaviour that were often set early in life and reinforced in school and work for all but the more maverick and rebellious of us. We’re used to being told what to do. Working stuff out for ourselves can feel daunting and unusual. We tend not to be brilliant at collaborative decision making, and too often remain stuck in the competitive need to win, rather than seek the win-win. Tools that encourage self-organisation and ownership bring out the better in us, but also bring out the rest in us. Over time behaviour shifts, but habits are notoriously persistent.

Self-propelled learning and problem solving also means that managers need to learn to let go of control, which can also be discomforting and even threatening. Positive results and an enthused workforce, however, soon illustrate the benefits of new approaches. Rather than well-intentioned directives cascading down the hierarchy to be met with indifference or the feigned relish of the easily replaced, how about asking staff to collaborate with leaders to find pathways that finally utilise their long ignored insight? Why not try introducing some bottom-up alongside the old top-down?

Leaders and managers might just discover that the expertise they seek was hiding under their noses all along.


See also: The Problem With Change Management

Beyond unConferencing: New Uses of Open Space

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@CaterflyOST or Francois @f12uk and Martin @ThrivingPlanet

Kaizen:  'A way of involving the whole workforce in continuous improvement, for a highly motivated workplace, delivering high quality for clients, and celebrating together'.

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