constructivist ideas in practice

alex swarbrick Alex is a consultant, facilitator and coach at Roffey Park Institute, a leadership development institute in the UK. He previously ran his own consultancy and coaching practice and has had HR roles at The Work Foundation, the BBC, and for an international development agency in Nepal. He has worked with individuals, teams and whole organisations, and is particularly interested in culture and in relational leadership. He has recently been awarded the Diploma in Personal Construct Psychology after studying with PCPA in the UK.  

Mary: Congratulations Alex on completing your PCP diploma! I enjoyed reading your final paper on resistance to change and I wondered what led to your choice of topic?

Alex: I’d started to notice how many organisational clients talk about change in hierarchical, mechanistic terms, and talk about 'resisters' to change as negative obstacles to be overcome. From a PCP perspective that seemed both a pretty condemning view of people, and to be missing what might actually be going on.

I chose to illustrate what I was exploring by looking at some examples of change in parts of the NHS, because of people I know whose working lives have been affected by changes in the health service.

M: How you would summarise your main thesis?

A: I called my paper ‘The Myth of Resistance to Change’ for two reasons. First, it seems to me that the way organisational change is often talked about by managers, and popular management writers, has mythical qualities; the story is set in a land that no longer exists (where organisations are like machines) and involves a noble quest (the change), a challenging journey, obstacles to be overcome along the way, heroes (the change agent) and villains (the change resisters). It struck me that ‘myths’ often offer a partial but inadequate explanation of a phenomenon, and one which might prevent people looking more closely at what was really happening. So part of my thesis is a challenge to the popular narrative around change in organisations.

And second, I could see the phenomenon we call resistance suffers from the same ‘mythical’ inadequate explanation. So I’m not saying the phenomenon is a myth; I’m saying that giving it the convenient label ‘resistance to change’ creates a myth that can limit our readiness to explore it more closely, and understand it more fully.

Also, when I hear managers’ everyday language of ‘force’ and ‘resistance’, ‘compliance’ and ‘disruption’, to me it implies that the only legitimate and rational source of power is the manager/change agent – and, by implication, resistance by the ‘change recipient’ is irrational and rebellious.

So my thesis is that being content to see resistance to change only in that way poses an organisational risk, in that it misses the opportunity to improve the change initiative by taking account of resisters’ input, thus increasing the likelihood of projects failing. And it also dehumanizes the people simply labeled ‘resisters’.

I’m interested in the view of Ford and Ford (2009) who propose that people who are outspoken in their objections to a change are often those who genuinely care about getting things right and who are close enough to how things work to recognise the pitfalls. And interestingly, people seen as resistant often understand their own behaviour as being supportive and not at all undermining of the organisation.

M: l guess that’s reflected in your NHS examples where those experiencing top-down change and raising issues were also trying to keep some core organisational values alive?

A: Yes, that’s why I chose those examples – important insight is lost if people’s objections are just dismissed. But to me these individuals also seemed to be acting out of some dearly held core personal values, attached to their sense of professionalism and care. As I said, I think that the ‘resister’ discourse de-values and dehumanises the individuals being labelled. For example, I heard someone recently talking about middle management in their organisation as ‘permafrost’ – an impenetrable layer of obstacle between innovative leaders and staff. I think it’s important to challenge that language because it really matters – I think it shapes as well as reflects people’s reality, and at a person-to-person level it’s demeaning.

M: Could you say why PCP has been such a useful and productive approach for you?

A: I find myself really drawn to it both philosophically and psychologically, and I think it has so much to offer in understanding this phenomenon of ‘resistance to change’.

Philosophically, the notion of ‘constructive alternativism’ – there always being an alternative way of seeing any situation – highlights the probability that individuals involved in the consequences and implications of a change may construe events very differently from those who initiated it. It also suggests that ‘resistance’ itself can be understood in different ways.

Change is built into PCP. Kelly wrote: “all of our present interpretations of the universe are subject to revision or replacement”. The theory implies that organisations, like the rest of the universe and all people, are continually in process. So neither organisations nor the people employed by them are static and inert objects waiting for some external force to nudge them into action. Kelly describes the person not as an object which is temporarily in a moving state but as “a form of motion”. So PCP would challenge the utility of physics-based theories of human and organisational behaviour.

I also find PCP useful in even challenging the very concept of ‘change’, suggesting it can be better understood as normal ‘life’, in which events simply have implications of varying magnitude. So it seems to me that much of what is described as resistance, when viewed from the perspective of the individual involved, can be seen simply as ‘living’ in the most useful way possible, and sometimes in the face of events which are experienced as having profound implications.

Psychologically, I am interested in the notion of an ‘inner outlook’ rather than an ‘outer inlook’. In other words, rather than condemning those experienced as resistant, PCP offers an invitation and a challenge to understand the world from their perspective, inquiring into what they might actually be doing when they appear from the outside to be resistant. What are they anticipating in how they currently understand the change, what are the implications of that, and in what ways might understanding that be helpful and important to the organisation and the person initiating the change?

M: What got you into PCP in the first instance?

A: All my working life - and a strong personal interest - has been about how and why people do what they do, particularly in organisations. I first heard of PCP 30 years ago as a student, when my wife was introduced to it as a Speech Therapy student. I was intrigued and captivated by the idea of us as humans moving through our lives developing and living out our construction of the events facing us.

Over the years I’ve worked a lot cross culturally, and PCP made so much sense in those contexts. So my curiosity hung around in the background until 10 years ago doing the foundation programme, and then the practitioner’s certificate with you. And while it’s been in the background of my practice as a consultant and coach for a long time, I wanted to understand more, and found the last two years of the diploma like ‘coming home’.

M: At a very practical level, how do you help the managers you meet to understand and work with these issues more creatively and productively?

A: I encourage them to expect ‘resistance’ if the change is at all meaningful. Then, as you put it to me once, I suggest to them that they might usefully see resistance as something to be understood not something to be overcome. And I’d suggest that when they encounter ‘resistance’, let it be a prompt to be curious, to set up processes which allow for dialogue and inquiry.

And whenever I get the chance I also continue to challenge the mechanistic model of organisations as the dominant metaphor, encouraging alternatives and considering their implications.

M: I’m intrigued by your emphasis on changing the language from ‘change agent to ‘change catalyst’ and would like to explore that a bit more. You seem to have a lot of confidence that a linguistic change will lead to a performative change and I’m feeling dubious.

A: I suppose it’s because to me, the discourse, the language used, reflects how an organisation sees change and resistance, but I’d also argue it plays a part in shaping how people construe change and resistance. I think there’s some Commonality and Sociality at work here. So as I mentioned, if we simply talk about change ‘agents’ and change ‘recipients’ we risk constraining our understanding to a top down, do-er and done-to logic, with all the power and privileges that go with that. And that misses the fuller picture. People’s participation in a change isn’t constrained to one of two roles. In reality, people can be simultaneously both ‘change agent’ and ‘change recipient’. So if we loosen and widen the language, then it becomes possible to usefully talk about a host of different relationships to a ‘change’ and roles within that change that people may be living out. It’s not uncommon for one individual to be at the same time a change initiator, change catalyst, change broker, change implementer, change challenger and so on. And I find this particularly the case for middle managers – those I heard otherwise described as ‘permafrost’.

Even the common terms ‘change management’ and ‘change leadership’ seem inadequate, so to me experimenting with alternative language and other meanings seems useful. The significant difference is that the alternative terms I’m proposing are not intended to describe a hierarchical role but a behaviour, a responsibility, a quality of participation in the change, and all applicable to any person at any level in an organisational hierarchy.

And if we dispense with the convenient term ‘change resistance’, we would also have to replace pejorative explanations for what’s going on, of people being irrationally obstructive, as if that’s just how some people are. Instead it might provoke curiosity to understand what others are actually doing when their behaviour seems ‘resistant’.

Paraphrasing George Kelly, if you want to understand what’s going on for someone, ask them; you never know, they might just tell you. From this position, the change facilitator’s role becomes one of supporting a reconstruing process, a search for a new narrative.

July 2015

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