Sorry for the rather un-festive title, but it’s triggered by reading a fascinating article at Harvard Business Review’s blog – Employees See Death When You Change Their Routines. It seems our sense of mortality is built on three pillars – consistency, standards of justice and culture – that the authors (James R Bailey and Jonathan Raelin) describe as existential buffers. The authors cite examples of actions that can undermine each of these, but the essential message – change knocks away one or more of those pillars and reminds us that all things (including, most importantly, our self and our sense of self) are transitory. Change is therefore perceived as threatening, and it is understandable that we therefore respond with ‘fight or flight’.

It’s a story of investment, in an emotional and psychological sense. Aware of our own mortality, we play down our own fears by using culture (in the broadest sense) to give us a sense of meaning, organisation and continuity, and to create feelings of belonging, security and self-esteem. Provided, of course, that we engage with and buy into the cultural values and standards in question. (And even those who see themselves as ‘outsiders’ have a perceived sense of something that they are outside: you can’t be outside something you don’t see as being there.)

To quote from the Terror Management Theory Faculty website at The University of Missouri:

Terror Management Theory (TMT) was proposed in 1986 by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. The theory was inspired by the writings of cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, and was initiated by two relatively simple questions: Why do people have such a great need to feel good about themselves?; and Why do people have so much trouble getting along with those different from themselves?”

In studies conducted by academic researchers in over 30 countries, the theory has been applied to a range of situations that extend far beyond Bailey and Raelin’s focus – the impact of changes in working life – to encompass a wealth of topics well beyond the remit of even the most adventurous HR professional: to quote from Pyszczynski’s University profile webpage, they include “self-deception, prejudice, interpersonal relations, altruism, aggression, sexual ambivalence, disgust, depression, anxiety disorders, unconscious processes, aging, human development, and terrorism”. A psychologist colleague here suggested narcissism and psychopathy should be added to the list.

I was struck, however, by some of the other conclusions that researchers have drawn, particularly: the following two (both quoted from an article on Wikipedia):

  • Individuals who highly enjoyed drinking alcohol rejected messages that linked drunk driving to death but accepted messages that tied drunk driving to arrest or social ostracism. TMT research therefore demonstrates that qualitative inquiry into the type of fear, not simply the gross amount of fear elicited, is crucial to the outcome of fear appeals on attitude change.
  • Research has shown that people, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. The data appears to show that nations or persons who have experienced traumas are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. They will also be hyper-aware of the possibility of external threats, and may be more hostile to those who threaten them. Additional research indicates those who are raised by authoritarian parents tend to conform to authority more frequently than those who are not.”

It seems like only in the previous post that we were talking about nostalgia, yet here it is again, popping up to comfort us in times of perceived threat with the comfort blanket of “traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints”. And seemingly giving unexpectedly strong backing for the sentiment behind world-weary expressions we’ve probably all overheard from at least one colleague, like “all this change is killing me”.

It does seem to make a degree of sense, however: if we expend considerable time, energy and emotion in investing yourself in a situation and developing a sense of esteem, pride and identity through doing so, it shouldn’t be so surprising that we feel under threat when the thing we have been investing ourselves in turns out to be a moving target.

It certainly put a very different spin on another blog post I read through serendipitous link-clicking earlier today: Stefan Lindegaard’s post at Blogging Innovation, Five People That Kill Innovation, which lists as its final item:

You: You kill innovation when you stop challenging the status quo, when you stop believing and when you stop pushing the limit.”

If Terror Management Theory has validity (I’ll come back to that as best I can), it would seem to offer a good reason as to why ‘You’ (in the most plural of plural senses) might be quite keen on not challenging the status quo, and an explanation as to why we might see challenging it as a way of undermining our ability to believe – at least in our understanding of our sense of ‘self’.

In commenting on the theory, evolutionary psychologists Carlos David Navarrete and Daniel M.T. Fessler, are less convinced by the theoretical framework, arguing (amongst other things) that:

[…] existential mortality concerns may not be particularly salient to individuals in societies where religious beliefs and fatalistic attitudes make avoiding such themes less troublesome than is the case for people living in complex industrialized nation-states where cultures emphasize secular life, longevity, avoidance of death, and control over one’s destiny.”

I’m no evolutionary psychologist, but … I was brought up slightly short by that final “control over one’s destiny”, particularly in the context of the Harvard Business Review blog post, where a sense of losing control of your own destiny was precisely the problem at hand. Perhaps we should leave the evolutionary psychologists to slug it out for now, but tactfully remind leaders, managers and change agents to be aware of the impact not just of change but of their handling of it on the people in who they hope or need to see a response that is neither fight nor flight.

As Bailey and Raelin explain, managers that can demonstrate and support consistency (explaining changes well in advance, and implementing them in a managed way) and frame cultural change in careful, detailed and nuanced ways as necessary to survival will stand a better chance of a positive outcome. Whether or not those facing the implications will have a mental brush with their own mortality isn’t for me to say – but it is for their managers and leaders to be aware of their feelings and reactions. Forceful resistance or a flight of talent will not help an initiative to be followed through (and the resistance may have good points to make, which should be listened to).

If you buy the theory, their last words are good ones. If you don’t, you may find them bombastic … but they’re still good words:

[…] And leaders should acknowledge that change equals loss. Otherwise they’ll appear clueless.

Change is necessary, but so is an understanding of how it invades people’s critical bulwarks against the awareness of mortality. We can’t stave off death forever, but good leadership can temper the debilitating effects of being reminded of it at work.”

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