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March 28, 2010

Change, Emo Change, and Mass Movements

In my day job I sometimes get involved in change, and change is hard to do well, at least for me. I puzzle over what are the factors that make change difficult. On the other hand, some situations make people (jihadis, for instance) eager to die for change and I wonder what separates these two very different responses. Why is it so hard to implement, for example, a new computer procedure but so easy for a Philadephia single mother to become Jihad Jane and join forces with assassins? What do the Sheiks (or the Nazis, or the Communists) know about managing change that I might benefit from?

In the last few weeks I've finished two books, each dealing with Change in their own way. One was written by a Ph.D., the other by a self-educated longshoreman, and I've enjoyed them both.

In Managing Transitions, William Bridges (Ph.D.) writes about the emotional impact of change and suggests that before people accept change they need to go through the emotional phases of transition: grieving the ending of the previous "normal", a chaotic empty neutral zone, followed by a willingness to come to terms with the "new normal".

Bridges goes on to point out that as the speed of change increases, people are increasingly dealing with multiple changes, each in their own phase - so that rather than dealing with one transitional phase in isolation, people are simultaneously in multiple endings, nuetral zones, and beginnings.

This was an interesting book, I've tended to see it as the "emo-change" book in the way it focuses on the emotional implications of change. It's certainly a balancing read for technoquants who see change management as a merely technical exercise.

While Bridges describes change as something difficult that people are adverse to, the second book discusses how and why people sometimes embrace major changes. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer discusses the nature of mass movements in which people eagerly seek change.

Eric Hoffer is an interesting study himself. Born into a working class family, he went blind at age seven. When his sight returned at 15, his fear of returning blindness prompted him to read voraciously. He became a migrant worker, living "between the books and the brothels". When called an intellectual, he insisted that he was a longshoreman.

Hoffer's book The True Believer talks about a situation in which people embrace radical change: the mass movement. He analyses the motivations that cause people to seek massive change, and explains that it is people with poor self-esteem that initially support mass movements, and that for them their membership in a movement is more important than the goals of the movement.

Hoffer's book is brilliant. Written in 1951, it explains both al Queda and the Obama presidential campaign. He analyzes the reasons that some seek big change (low self-esteem, frustration, no creative outlet) and the reasons that some people are impervious to movements (high self-esteem, individual identity, a fully formed personality).

He charts the leadership of movements from the men of words, to the fanatics, to the men of action, and finally to the administrators. In Hoffer's book, which is quite non-political, resistance to change is attibuted to people who are people who are fully formed individuals - and apathy to change is attributed to people struggling for survival.

My take-aways from Hoffer's book are (1) marveling at the philosopher and (2) re-appraisal of resistance to change. Perhaps it's a good thing that some people are resistant to change, and perhaps those in that category are among our best people.

Maybe change shouldn't be easy. Maybe initiators should have to justify it, earn it, and work it.

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