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Organizational Change
By Billy S. Humphrey
Published: 09/19/2011

Chang d Change is the norm, not the exception, and leadership always matters. The more alert the leaders are, the better the organization functions.

When we speak of organizational change, we oftentimes refer to the culture of the agency. Institutional culture is defined as the values or basic assumptions that people of an organization hold about how one ought to think and behave. Our thoughts ultimately control our behavior. Organizational change occurs when agency members voluntarily alter their way of thinking and commit to an alternative method. Warren Bennis wrote in 1984 that to transform organizations and their cultures, leadership must literally alter organizational norms, realities, beliefs, values and assumptions. Chris Agyris in 1970 suggested that such a change process required free, informed choice as well as internal commitment. Free informed choice foster personal responsibility for decisions and then the internalized commitment necessary for the change initiative to be successful.

It is important for senior leadership to clearly demonstrate that they are committed to organizational change if it is to be accepted as genuine. Senior leadership must then ensure that the fundamental premises of the new vision are clearly outlined for staff. This is important for line staff employees, and critically important with members of the supervisory component. Richardson and Vandenberg wrote in 2005 that organizational change efforts are often absolutely dependant on supervisory processes within the immediate work unit.

Supervisors are oftentimes reluctant to embrace a new ideology of management. We usually suggest that it is merely idealistic and less effective than the classical approach to managing people. Managers argue that it is difficult at the present time to achieve organizational goals simply because people do not do what is required of them, and if we alter our approach to a more employee-centered style, then we will certainly be unable to achieve organizational objectives.

What history has illustrated to many organizations is the exact opposite of what we anticipate. Organizations continue to evolve, grow, stabilize and become more productive in both the private and public sector by changing their leadership style to a more principle-centered approach. In 1990, Peter Senge referred to these agencies who embraced change as learning organizations. He suggested that learning organizations distinguish themselves from other agencies who continue to utilize a traditional, authoritarian and controlling approach to human resource management.

Organizational change efforts usually fail when members of management become frustrated with a select few employees who are challenging and revert back to our old habits of supervision. Inevitably, we begin to allow these situations to impact the manner in which we treat the entire group because we feel as though we must be consistent. In the end, our natural style becomes coercive and authoritative once again with threats of punishment being our primary reaction to the majority of our work situations.

We will always have a small percentage of co-workers who are for whatever reason challenging, difficult and / or non-productive. Our success in the end rests with our ability to remember that challenging employees are the exception as opposed to the rule. We must also resist the urge to be authoritative and coercive with everyone simply because of the actions of a few. Managers can effectively hold people accountable and even dismiss staff with a certain measure of decency. Goodness is not the enemy of accountability. The final point here is oftentimes the most difficult for us to realize. When we as an organization embrace coercive methods as opposed to a servant leadership style, it is these methods which ultimately create the majority of our challenging situations with staff. In essence, we are our own worst enemy.

Organizational development is a long-range effort to improve an organization’s problem-solving and renewal processes, particularly through a more effective and collaborative management of organizational culture. E.H. Schein effectively stated in 1980 that an internal climate of support and freedom from threat is necessary for an organization to increase its overall health and effectiveness. He rightfully suggested that being threatened undermines good communication, reduces flexibility and stimulates self-protection rather than a genuine concern for the organization.

Experts wrote about the fundamental premises of servant leadership before the term was ever developed. It is a principle-centered approach that breaks away from old habits of the past and equally balances the needs of the agency with the necessary consideration for people. Human resources are not merely a means of achieving a desired end. They are the social capital of an agency comprised of women and men that in actuality determine whether or not an organization is successful or unsuccessful. These people deserve basic respect even in difficult, challenging situations. Rude behavior is never consistent with the ideals of servant leadership, and coercion as a primary means of managing people has been shown throughout our history to be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

At the end of the day, it is the members of the supervisory component that determine if an agency embraces change and a better way, or whether we merely continue to accept the status quo. It is the leadership who educates people and encourages them to willingly commit to a new way of thinking and behaving. Steven Ott suggested in 2008 that organizational change is the process of people making relatively permanent alterations in their behavior as a function of their experiences and learning over time. With learning, change becomes possible. With change and experience, the quality of organizational lives can improve!

A servant leadership mentality can certainly facilitate this type of positive change if everyone is truly committed and we demonstrate to others that we are genuinely concerned about their personal and professional well-being. This concern and commitment must first and foremost be demonstrated by the actions of those in key positions of leadership in order for cultural change to be truly successful.

There is no substitute for respectable leadership, and leadership that is not respectable is not really leadership at all.

Primum non nocere


J. Steven Ott, Sandra J. Parks, Richard B. Simpson. Classic Readings in Organizational Behavior. Thomson Wadsworth. 4th edition. 2008.

Editors Note:Corrections.com author, Billy S. Humphrey, began his career in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1989. He has served as Warden and Director of Training / Staff Development in Adult Corrections, and as Deputy Director of Juvenile Corrections. He is currently a Parole Commissioner for the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole.

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