What we can learn about change management from Sigmund Freud

One of my core beliefs as a management consultant is that the root cause of why change projects fail is the lack of a clear and convincing business case. In my experience, the vast majority of people are willing to change (even if this change has negative implications for them), as long as they understand the rationale behind the change and have the means (resources) to change.

However, I also have come across a number of people who did not want to change, even when there was a clear need to do so, and they had all the required capabilities and resources at their disposal.

Examples include:

  • A CEO who did not want to embark on a savings program, despite the fact that her company was on the brink of bankruptcy
  • A leader of a national operating company of a global corporation, refusing to implement global policies and processes in the subsidiary he was leading
  • A struggling department head who was told by the executive board to get a grip on his portfolio, but, despite the help of an executive coach, was unable to produce a list of his top-10 priorities
  • A project manager on the verge of a burn-out consequently refusing offers from her leader to provide additional resources to support his project program

All these examples have three things in common: a clear case for change (something needs to be done) and a clear course of action (what should be done), as well as the availability of the necessary resources to act.

Enter Freud

I never understood why, given their intelligence and the consequences associated with their lack of action, the people in the examples mentioned above were not able to change their behaviors… until I came across Freud’s concept of ‘epinosic gain’. Epinosic gain (also known as secondary gain) describes the phenomenon that some people develop illness symptoms in order to deal with psychological pressure. 

Examples include school children who are bullied at school, employees that have a troubled relationship with their line manager, or students that are afraid to fail their exams. 

On the one hand, these individuals suffer from their illness symptoms, on the other hand, they also also ‘gain’ from them: when they are ill the school children will not be bullied, the employees do not have to face their line managers and the students do not need to show up for their exams. 

Finding the gain

Looking at the cases I described at the start of this post, I found that epinosic gain provides a great analogy to look at behaviors that are otherwise difficult to explain from a ‘rational’ business perspective.

After all, which CEO would want to have her company go bankrupt, which leader would like to be fired for refusing to implement (meaningful) global policies and processes, which leader for lack of getting a grip on his agenda and which project manager for letting his project fail.

However, when looking at these behaviors from an epinosic gain perspective, interesting questions arise. 

What did the CEO gain by withstanding the pressure from her investors and executive board to embark on a savings program: pride, a desire to save her face in public, fear of having to bring the bad news to her employees?  

What did the national leader gain by resisting the implementation of global policies and processes? I know he left the organization to take up a senior leadership role in a smaller domestic company where he obtained a position with much more autonomy. Did this desire for autonomy and independence play a role in his behavior? 

The procrastinating executive was ultimately fired. After his dismissal, he became a relatively successful independent consultant and seemed to be much happier as such. Did he perhaps have an unconscious desire to be fired, a decision for which he would never have taken the initiative himself?

We can also start to guess what the gain of the project manager was to accept help. Perhaps it was a fear of coming across as incompetent or a fear of losing independence.

A different conversation

Although I can only guess the answers to these questions, it seems obvious to me that the reasons why these individuals apparently preferred to remain to be stuck in an, objectively speaking, unsatisfactory situation, had nothing to do with their capabilities. Therefore I have to assume that the way they acted had everything to do with their personal needs. 

In hindsight, I realize that when the reasons for their behavior had been properly discussed at the time, this would not have benefited just these individuals, but their organizations as well.

At the same time, I realize these situations require a different conversation. 

Most conversations about change only deal with the technical aspects of a specific change (business case, advantages, disadvantages, alternatives, etc.); discussions about feelings and emotions are usually restricted to what should be done ‘to create buy-in’, how to deal with ‘resistance’ and what to do with ‘blockers’. 

The explanations for this ‘resistance’ and the ‘blocking behaviors’ are also often simplistic. We blame this either on the cognitive abilities of the individuals concerned (‘they don’t get it’), or their self-interest (‘he is afraid to lose power’). 

From the perspective of epinosic gain, however, we should look more often beyond these simplistic explanations, and engage in different conversations with the individuals concerned; conversations about their ‘fears, hopes and expectations.

Simultaneously, we need to realize we might not always be successful. After all, the drivers for our behavior partly belong to what Freud and Jung identified as the domain of the unconscious. This means that we are only partly aware of the drivers for our behavior.

Unfortunately, not all of us have the possibility to be trained as a psychoanalyst, nor do we have years at our disposal in change management processes to find out the deepest drivers of the various people involved.

What is certain, however, is that these types of conversations do not only require different space and time, they also require a different kind of relationship.

A relationship based on trust.

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© Dirk Verburg 2020

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