The consciousness of change

April 15, 2020

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” - Mahatma Gandhi.

People are always on the move. We all have hopes and dreams we want to achieve in life and yet, I'm sure we can all relate, changing our habits is hard. We are following certain patterns of normality we are not fully aware of. I experienced how persistent human habits are, throughout my work as organizational change consultant and my volunteering work as financial coach. To achieve change successfully, the first step is to transform the unconsciousness into consciousness.

In parallel to my job as an organizational change consultant, I started working as a volunteer. Aim of this work is, to help people improve their financial situations. My motivation for this work, is for a significant part caused by my global travel experience. The inequality I have seen, made me realize how fortunate I am to be given all the opportunities for personal growth.

In addition, my Master’s study on business anthropology, showed me how much the quality of life is affected by external factors on which people’s influence is limited, making me feel uncomfortable. Hence, I started coaching a woman from Amsterdam who is facing multiple problems, including personal debts. In this article, I will elaborate on the following question: to what extent is intended change manageable in big organizational transformations and in people's personal lives?

Consulting organizations – cultural dynamics

In organizational change consultancy, both individual and group change dynamics are at play. These dynamics are influenced by the culture within the organisation. Organizational culture is the way employees perceive and understand their reality. Employees distinguish themselves by their place of work, occupation, and generation. In other words, people all bring their own “cultural baggage” to the company. In that essence, organizational culture must be regarded as a heterogenous, dynamic process in which different constructs of reality coexist. Subsequently, employees create shared sets of values, norms, and perceptions. These perceptions also determine how individuals and groups respond to (organizational) changes. In the so to speak “organizational arena” dynamics of multiple identities are influencing the way people make sense of change. “Identity”, in this context, refers to the way individuals reflect upon their sense of self and how they relate to others and the organization. Within a company, many different ways of individual and organizational identity relations coexist, which can be perceived as “organizational subcultures”.

We, as consultants, urge organizational leaders within transformations to develop a “cultural antenna”, that pays attention to formal identification strategies, defining how actors of different subcultures make sense of organizational change. This insight will help us to adjust our organizational interventions to direct the change on macro and micro level. Culture is such a fluid phenomenon, on the other hand, making you question whether it is even possible to manage a cultural, and therefore sustainable behavioural change?

Are we in the driver’s seat?

To answer this question, we have to dive into the previously stated matter: the way people respond to change depends on subcultures derived from multiple identities, that influence behaviour. The involved social structure affects the organizational normality significantly. Social structure is the recurrent patterned arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. As the counterpart of social structure, agency is the magnitude of individuals to act autonomously and to make their own choices: to be in the driver’s seat. To what extent people’s choices and behavior are shaped by social structure or independency is much debated. This realization, makes us more aware of our ability to be influential in intended change. In this sense, comparing my consulting and financial coaching disciplines is very interesting.

Consulting and coaching analogies

I found out that there are many interesting similarities in my consultancy and volunteering experiences. First, I observed in practice that human behaviour is very hard to change, in personal lives as well as in organizations. In line with theory, we all have our - unconscious - reasons to act the way we do. In organizations, the group and power dynamics play a significant role in how people make sense of the imposed change. This realization makes us, as consultants, able to gain better understanding of people's reactions and the likelihood that the imposed change is sustainable. With that knowledge, we can try to tactically adjust organizational interventions towards the directions of the imposed transformation.

The same realisation can be applied to coaching individuals. When I started the voluntary coaching trajectory, I was prejudiced. I couldn’t understand how people’s lives can turn into so much negativity, with serious personal debts and other problems that come with that. Now that I have had many conversations with my coachee, I have grown my empathy that there are many underlying understandable reasons why people act the way they do, even though it is not in their advantage. Factors like youth circumstances, cultural background, education, and imposed identities influence people’s decisions drastically. The key question is, how can we deal with that much ambiguity in reaching our change goals?

The importance of asking questions

My consultancy experience and financial coaching experience both taught me an important lesson: the importance of asking and listening. Asking the right questions, supplementary questions and listening carefully to the answers serves three main objectives. First, it helps to grow mutual understanding of the perspective of the other person(s). Better understanding helps to avoid wrong assumptions and accommodate more suitable interventions. Second, asking and listening makes the other party feel heard and understood, fostering collaboration towards the change objectives. And lastly, the most important benefit, is the fact that asking questions helps people increase acumen in their own unconscious habits and behaviours, hence enhance insight in the desirable behaviour to reach the goals. This is the very starting point in becoming the change we wish to see in the world.