Are You Underpinning Your Change Management Practices and Programmes with Social Psychology?
By Laurence Nicholson
(For the audio podcast, click HERE)
Following on from my articles for NCG:Mediation on the ‘Understanding Threat/Reward Response Psychology For Effective Challenge To Suggested Offers’ and ‘Finding Emotional Encouragement to Help Realign a Dispute Situation’, aimed primarily at Mediators, but relevant to anyone in a management position, I am talking today about the presence, or lack thereof, of any depth of social psychology within most organisational change management practices and organisational programmes.
10 years ago, Edgar H. Schein said “The world is becoming more technologically complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse, which makes the building of relationships more and more necessary to get things accomplished and, at the same time, more difficult”, and I doubt anyone would challenge that statement today, as it is arguably more so now in 2023.
Schein’s statement was made against a backdrop of his work into organisational change and development, and the foundations of social psychology these need to be built on.
So, what is social psychology?
Gordon Allport, one of the pioneers of social psychology, defined it as “..the scientific attempt to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings” (Allport & Lindzey, 1954, p.5).
In this vein of trying to determine these elements, Fiske (2010, p.14) described what he calls the ‘social core motives’. These are the fundamental, underlying psychological processes that determine these thoughts, feelings and behaviours of people in situations in which they have to deal with others. These five motives are ‘belonging, understanding, controlling, trusting and self-enhancement.[i]
In the pursuit of the goal of making the world a better place, social psychologists (being social scientists) study practical social issues, like those relating to change management, and their application to real-world problems is one of their key goals.
It is believed that we could understand and reduce some of the negative influences people present, if we truly understand how people influence one another, either directly or indirectly.
“And what has this to do with change management?” I hear you ask.
Well, given the challenges people and organisations have had and continue to have today, the discipline of change management needs to keep developing positively and effectively to encompass both the individual person and the social person (the isolated, unique individual and the person as an element of the group).
As we know, or should know, change management is predominantly about behavioural change in individuals and in the group, and these are intricately woven together, both impacting the other and each providing a catalyst to the other in a complex behavioural dance.
Exactly because change is a very human experience, and played out within an environment that is a complex construct of behaviours, emotions and perceived values, both of the individual and the social persons involved, it is important, if not imperative, that advisers and consultants engaged in the practice of change management know and understand the socio-psychological aspects of organisational change. Unfortunately, as found and stated by Strikwerda (2002) and more recent studies (Fiske, 2010. Aronson, 2016), this knowledge in many advisers and managers is too superficial, if not entirely absent, and so is missing, or underutilised, in a large percentage of the available ‘specialists’ literature’ on change management.
There is a way to improve on this availability and application of said knowledge, and that is through the employment of a set of four foundational insights into social psychology, that I have summarised next. In my change management coaching, I explore each in much more detail, including how to apply them as foundational pillars of organisational change.
The first actually echoes an element of my Neuroscience In Management training and materials[ii], and that is that people are social animals. Our brains do not experience the workplace as a transactional environment (you provide work for a monetary/benefits compensation) but as a social system (Rock, 2018). Change in organisations is thus inevitably a social process.
The second highlights why some form of cohesion and structured methodology are so important, in recognising there are a number of psychological forces and factors at play during any change, and that subsequently requires a variety of theories and insights. Something Rijsman (1990) referred to as “an inventory of social influences”.
The third relates to the central mechanics within social systems during change, and that is to assign meaning to the change and its motivation. It is clear that stating a ‘mission or vision’, announcing a ‘set of values’ or offering some type of reward system, generally achieve next to nothing. These will only accomplish something if they are meaningful to those people, both individually and as a group, who are involved. Meaning is thus key to successful change.
The fourth runs somewhat counter to much of the optimistic rhetoric usually found in the numerous books put out by the self-professed change ‘gurus’ and ‘specialist consultants’ within the change management industry. It highlights that people, both the individual person and social or group person, reacts in unique and variable ways within the social environments, depending on the multiplicity of factors (see insight 2 above) at play, so it is essential to be able to explain, understand and predict, as much as possible, the actual and likely reactions, paying special attention to the negatives and capitalising at both individual and social (group) levels on the positives.
These foundations, when applied appropriately and with evidenced knowledge and understanding, will provide for a strong platform from which to manage any organisational change programme, to more successful conclusions.
If you would like to learn more about the details behind these four foundational pillars of insight, and how to implement them within your own change programmes, as well as the five core social motives, contact us here at N Cubed Group and ask about our Social Psychology In Change Management Coaching Programme.
As always, leave me comments, good bad or indifferent, by email or against the article (on the ‘blog’ page if you are listening to the podcast), and watch out for the next topic in a few weeks.
[i] For further details relating to the five core social motives, contact N Cubed Group and ask about their coaching workshops on social psychology in change management
[ii] See N Cubed Group website at https://ncubedgroup.com/cognitve-strength-workshops.html