Language, psychology and a humanistic perspective on “Change Management”.

This article is about the humanistic side of “Change Management” and will NOT deal with strategic reasons, business models or specific techniques to carry out this activity.

One of the most common phrases heard these days in Management Committees in “innovative” organizations is that of “Change Management”. However, as a linguist, psychotherapist & communication specialist with a special interest in the effects of language on mind & body, I am amazed that so few people actually understand the effects of using this type of terminology on both the mind & body of the people involved in this proposed “Change”.

In Linguistics & Neuro Linguistic Programming, both the word “Change” & “Management” are defined as nominalizations which basically means that each person has their own definition of these words which may, or may not, be the same as their companions in the organization.  An easy exercise to test this is to ask a group of 6 people to write down their own definitions of “management”, give them three minutes to complete the task and then get them to read back ONLY what they have written down. Then compare the differences!

Many psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, coaches & NLP specialists speak about ”Changework” & “change” when working with clinical clients: An example from these areas is: “What changes would you like to make?” yet frequently these “Caring professionals” do not observe, notice, or place importance on the effect of these words on the client/patient. In general, people prefer to “improve” instead of “change”.

“Change management” explicitly indicates that there is a need to change and that IT IS going to happen…The decision has been made! However, many people believe that if something has been working more or less effectively for a period of time and has always worked, why is there this newly identified, sudden & urgent need to change? There is also an explicit understanding that whatever is currently being done is ineffective, poor, weak, unprofessional, or lacking in some way & can be taken as a direct, or indirect , comment or criticism of the employees in the organization..

Our studies with both business & clinical clients indicate that when people hear the word “Change”, they immediately start thinking about the following areas (in no particular order):

Fear: Change involves new, known &/or unknown risks in the short-, medium- & long-term and, generally, everyone likes to reduce risks to the minimum. These fears might involve feelings of inadequacy, job security, future prospects within the organization, etc. There are enough risks around us without looking for more in the work environment!

Newness: Change generally requires learning new skills;  abilities; techniques; structures; systems; ways of working and the modification of “tried & trusted” working practices. The people affected by the change will be asked to forget what they have learned & done – often after many years of use and, from their point of view, effective functioning. People who have been performing the same function in the same way over a period of time have acquired a level of psychological security which is often lost when change is announced or actually occurs.
This has been identified as “The Einstellung Effect” which posits that:
“After learning to solve a problem one way, we are blind to other more efficient methods.”

Change in power or status:
Change is always accompanied by a perceived or actual loss, or gain, in power or status. People generally have a perception of their relative power or status within any organization, whether it be in a business or family context, and this directly affects their methods of interaction with other components in this unit. When change occurs it requires the people involved to modify their own self-perception and perception of others; find new ways of interacting with co-workers; develop new skills and abilities and psychologically adapt to the changes in power & status.

More/less responsibility.
Change is often accompanied by an increase or decrease in responsibility which may or may not be accompanied by adjustments to the employees’ salaries. Not everyone wants to have additional responsibilities thrust upon them or, conversely, have responsibilities taken from them which could be seen as a “demotion” or punishment by coworkers.

Resistance from some and Acceptance from others.
There are certain types of people who are resistant to change and will often fight tooth-and-nail against it. There is another large group of people who have absolutely no problems adopting change – even on an almost daily basis! The third, and smallest,  group need much more time to accept, assimilate & incorporate change into their “whole being” than the two previous groups.

New “strange” abilities required?
In some case “change” means that the people involved need to develop new abilities that they might feel are strange or difficult for them to acquire or perfect: one example is that of using Information Technology (computers, etc.) or Social Networking, etc.

Excessive / Incomplete / insufficient information.
In many organizations there are usually three tendencies followed when dealing with !Change”:
1.    Keep all the information about what, where, when, why, how, who, etc., secret until the launch date so that everyone get ALL the data in one gigantic information overload.
2.    Start with small / minor “cosmetic changes” or mini-projects without revealing the overall grand design of these elements. This is something that encourages the rumour factory in the organization to function overtime.
3.    Start the process without telling the people affected what the aims, objectives and steps involved which creates the perception that it is “insignificant”.

Pressures: time, etc?
Frequently “change” is based on a timetable of activities and actions which are fixed by the “Change Manager” and must be completed On Time! This is a nice, highly structured, little system for some people (about 12% of the population), however, for another part of the population, the pressure of time, completion dates, etc., can cause stress which can undermine any activities that directly affect them or their environment.

For many people, it is easier to reject than to change This rejection can lead to a reduced level of  commitment to the changes being implemented with negative effects on the organization.  

As we can seem from the information above, I would like to propose that instead of using the phrase “Change Management” in our organization, we use one of the following phrases “Improvement Management”; “Improvement implementation”; “Improvement & development”  or “improvement fulfillment”.

The phrase “Improvement Management” is generally seen as being much more positive, non-threatening, more effective, more motivational and easier to process psychologically which helps the organization move forward in its plans for development & innovation.

In the second article related to this topic we will deal with some of the common errors encountered in this process.

(c) Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., Madrid, Spain, September, 2012.
Bilingual web page (English & Spanish):

About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
This entry was posted in Advanced Communication, General Communication, Leadership, Training & Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Language, psychology and a humanistic perspective on “Change Management”.

  1. Pingback: Language, psychology and a humanistic perspective on ?Change … | ycurorutesa

  2. gecko1000 says:

    Ian – I too am interested in the language and psychology of ‘Change Management’. I am also interested in organisations as complex adaptive systems – an antithesis to the ‘grand plan’ school of Change. Your analysis of the psychological impact of the word ‘change’ is interesting and adds detail to my own views. My singular thought about replacing ‘change’ with ‘improvement’ is the prevailing uses of these words in organisations – change seems to be synonymous with structural big picture change, and carries some sense of urgency, while improvement is possibly deemed incremental and smaller-scale within structure. My own attempt at re-labelling Change Management has been to use the phrase ‘Adaptive Development’. It has the benefit of implying an evolution towards fitness for purpose in an ecological niche and of being a process that is not ‘done to us’ but developed by all of us. The drawback is that it can appear too reactionary and lacking in vision. I’d be interested to know your thoughts. In the meantime, I will post a link to your article in two of my Linked In groups. Regards Richard Simpson

  3. ianbrownlee says:

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for your comments. Your term “‘Adaptive Development’” is a great improvement over “Change Management”. I believe that “Change” should always be a step-by-step or incremental process in that approx 12% of the population (Auditives in NLP terms) resist change vigorously, The problem is that the auditives tend to me senior managers (50+ years old) or top level decision-makers. The only way to “change” them is by making slow, small changes that start the ball rolling. Once they are involved in this “rolling ball” situation, they tend to move more rapidly…like a snowball rolling downhill.
    Ian B.

  4. jht29 says:

    Hi Ian – I really liked and enjoyed reading your analysis, especially being a big fan of linguistics as you are! I have experienced, either directly or organisationally, most of the facets you identify in your analysis in 25 years of working in local government and the past nine or so years as a consultant working with and for various public and third sector organisations across the UK and Europe.

    I also agree that too much emphasis is laid on the strategic nuances of change and the mechanistic approaches for implementing it, with little or limited concern for the human consequences. More importantly, with little or no real understanding as to how overlooking these can totally derail any change plan or management approach linked to a change agenda.

    So you left me musing and that is something I love to do, so thank you for that. I also like to give feedback and my final thought would be that I preferred Richard’s term ‘Adaptive Development’ to your term ‘Improvement Management’ which, for me, has too strong a Performance Management connotation.

    Cheers John

  5. Terry Lyon-McCarthy says:

    Hello Ian, great article.

    My only comment is that while I was reading about the linguistic nuances of the term ‘change management’, the phrase ‘improvement implementation’ popped into my head. I was pleasantly surprised to read you suggested the term ‘improvement’ over ‘change’, but the nuances of management were still there.

    Just a thought.


    • ianbrownlee says:

      Glad you liked the article. Your last cooment is very true, Terry. However, as I am sure you are aware, in business you always have go verrrrrrrrry slowly as too much new stuff at one time can be scary for bosses. We could use your phrase “Improvement implementation” or “Improvement & development”, or “improvement fulfillment” – very American! :-),
      have a great week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s