THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHANGE
TAKE TIME TO TACKLE THE PERSONAL IMPACTS, EXPERTS SAY
Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
Whether itís the boom-and-bust cycle of the e-commerce explosion, rampant mergers and restructuring within agribusinesses, or dramatic economic shifts in farming, change borders on religion in the modern workplace. Meanwhile, most people are telling themselves, and each other, the fallout is "nothing personal, just business."
In a book of the same title, an anthropologist and organizational consultant insists that change inflicts psychological and emotional impacts that need to be better understood and managed to boost long-term morale, productivity and efficiency.
"The emphasis on conglomerate, homogenized thinking as opposed to more individual, critical thinking, self- and organizationally-responsible thinking, is something that is cropping up everywhere," says Howard Stein, professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. "There is an obliteration of individual character."
Heís not alone in his views. "Weíre throwing people together without understanding the human condition," says J. Scott Vernon, director of the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication at California Polytechnic State University and a motivational speaker who has consulted with farm organizations, breed associations and regional businesses. "The corporate world is starting to understand that human capital is their most valuable asset."
Ag communicators routinely confront change, both in their careers and as witnesses to their cultureís communal myth regarding its necessity and value. The inflated potential of the short-lived e-commerce boom provides just one example.
"Itís been a true roller-coaster," says Kurt Lawton, editor for Rooster.com, one of agricultureís e-site survivors. "Because of my thought process before I ever took this job, I didnít go down to the lowest part of the roller-coaster. I was prepared for the downside."
He took two months to make the decision to leave Farm Industry News, a Webb-Intertec publication. "I pondered it a good six weeks and talked to a lot of people," he recalls. "I analyzed the industry and looked at the investors to get some clarity on their longevity in the market. The biggest surprise is in living change rather than just reading about it or hearing about it, because itís the experience that counts. Iíve taken some risks in my life but this is the biggest one Iíve taken."
"Itís not the destination thatís important, itís the journey," says Bill Newham, vice president/publishing director at Vance Publishing. "The promise of the Internet is still there. It didnít go anywhere," he says. "A lot of assumptions were made that were wrong. It always gets back to needs analysis."
Getting involved in the Internet made people into pioneers who "did not know what was over the hill," he observes. When Internet sales failed to take off as expected, many companies were forced to go on the defensive, he adds.
"Everybody got caught up in the hype and emotion of the moment," Newham says.
"Whatís brought on some of this current stress level is the change in agriculture itself," adds Cindy Cunningham, assistant vice president of communications for the National Pork Board. "You have to find a way to compete. Itís the same way in terms of communication. What do I have to do to still be a player in five years? You have to think several years out. Thatís whatís exciting."
"The bottom line," she adds, "is you really have to be committed to what you are doing and why you are doing it. Play devilís advocate, but donít allow yourself to always be on the negative. You need to find whatever motivates you. Iím at the top of my game in the heat of the battle."
Interestingly, battle imagery is a prominent theme in Steinís weighty books. An endearing and humble man with a long, Jewish beard, an eager friendliness and a highly academic writing style, Stein says his own experiences in the academic, psychoanalytic and medical fields testify to a business culture increasingly characterized by homogenization, competitiveness, depersonalization and hype.
"The last part of my book essentially calls for making the workplace more humane, which requires an almost spiritual awakening on the part of stockholders, workers and shareholders," says Stein in an interview at an Oklahoma City book signing.
"The kind of solutions a lot of people call for is essentially to tear things apart. People like Timothy McVeigh go to the extreme of that sort of thing," he continues. "Iím calling for a spiritual re-generation of the workplace by re-examining who we are and the meaning of work in peopleís lives and the nature of human relatedness."
In Nothing Personal, Just Business, he uses the case study of an Oklahoma City school district devastated by two terms of poor leadership - one by a superintendent who embezzled money, another by a tyrannical controller - to demonstrate organizational healing. "I have chosen to end my book with this study because it shows how Ďpersonalí ostensibly Ďimpersonalí business practices, strategies, and philosophies are. It reveals the festering wound heavily crusted over by organizational and wider cultural defenses. It shows what is possible - and what prevents the possibility from being realized," he writes.
Grieving results from change and loss and is often heightened by a shared sense of denial, Stein con"ludes. "We Americans - and increasingly, people worldwide - crave quick fixes, encouraging spins, instant enlightenment(s). We want to suffer no anxiety or loss of profit," he writes.
TEARING DOWN WALLS
By using a leadership retreat to create a nurturing, safe, "holding" environment, group facilitators helped administrators and board members get past personality conflicts and unresolved issues to reach a new level of personal sharing and emotional expression. In one instance, Stein describes passing around a piece of the former Berlin Wall. "People did not pass it off like a Ďhot potato,í" he writes, "but examined it, held it. I talked about the Berlin Wall, not only politically, but also psychologically in terms of how people everywhere use various symbols to wall out others and erect protective barriers between parts or aspects of themselves."
He also passed out a variety of hats to discuss organizational role-playing. "What stories (if any) are people trying to tell about themselves, or to hide, through the hats they wear? What stories and roles do we impose on others by Ďreadingí our own meanings and fantasies into their hats? What hats do we keep putting on, when others have already removed them? What hats do we unconsciously put on other people, delegating to them proxy roles to act out and represent idealized or devalued parts of ourselves?"
Blaming, hating, aggression and fighting are personal methods of projecting an inner chaos onto outer villains and victims, he explains.
"I had heard over the past three days numerous references to a feeling of Ďurgencyí to do something, to have a plan of action or policy. I wondered whether, in addition to action being necessary to complete any task, the present sense of urgency to Ďdo somethingí might not also be a response to grief: a kind of flight into relentless activity in order not to feel," he writes. "What, then, would grief be? I suggested that it would involve reviewing history rather than banning its mention; reviewing events, feelings, images, telling and retelling the story over and again until it feels finished, worked through by being fully faced."
Healing involves critically examining or casting aside common business "euphemisms," pretentious words or expressions used in place of plainer and more accurate language for the sake of manipulation, he says. His examples include terms like "human resources" or "labor," "downsizing" and "restructuring."
A rapidly changing society offers less time to people who need it more, especially as they adjust to change, Vernon says. "Donít try to hide the challenges. It will take some time," he says.
He also recommends involving people in decision-making, especially long-term. "Leaders have to understand where their company is going and articulate a vision. That doesnít mean you can carry everybody with you all the time. But that helps people understand their role," he says. "Look at different ways to get input. Itís a key source of empowerment. Some people just donít care to be included, and it frustrates them when they have to go to meetings. Other people need to be very intimately involved because they bring a different sense of input to it."
Awareness of interpersonal issues is growing, he adds.
"Companies are beginning to offer more counseling when change has an adverse effect," he observes. "Iím seeing more severance packages that include transitional help to move people from one career into another or to find a new position. Thereís a tremendous amount of innovation, creativity and excitement in this environment, and thatís fun. In time, you can be more productive if change has that kind of effect." AM
Howard Steinís two organizational books, Nothing Personal, Just Business ($65) and Euphemism, Spin, and the Crisis in Organizational Life ($55) are available from Greenwood Publishing Group by calling 1-800-225-5800. Several collections of his poetry can be ordered from Dorance Publishing Co., 1-800-788-7654.
Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist in Enid, Okla.