Posts Tagged Learning

Survival Anxiety & the Public Sector

*Note added 11th May 2010 with the announcement of David Cameron as British Prime Minister:

“Tonight, as David Cameron started his tenure as British Prime Minister I reflected on the post below from Oct 2009. Although it relates to a very narrow idea of “survival anxiety” associated with the management of change, I sense tonight a very real “survival anxiety” stalks our Public Sector. If, as promised, David Cameron and George Osborne make immediate cuts (aka “efficiency savings” ) to our Public Sector then many will be anxious and many will not survive. My thoughts are with them and hope only that in undertaking their program of “reform” the ConDem coalition tread lightly and are considered in their approach. Even Labour’ harshest critics would admit that much good work has been done across many of our vital public services in the last 13 years – even a cursory glance at this month’s Prospect Magazine confirms it – it would be a travesty to see that undone on a point of political principle.  In the end it may sit with Vince Cable, the progressives ‘ace in the hole’ – to ensure that this baby doesn’t get thrown out with that proverbial bathwater. I wish him and all those across Government well and offer the words of Thomas Jefferson as a reflection: “Delay is preferable to error”.

A few years ago I read a fascinating article by the rather brilliant Edgar Schein on the topic of “Learning Anxiety”.

It links to one of my great personal and professional fascinations – how and why do we (humans, organisations, society) change/learn anew and how can that change/learning be best facilitated.

Schein’s premise is quite stark but simple:

  1. All change – personal or professional is fundamentally coercive and a source of anxiety
  2. Anxiety inhibits learning (change) but it is also necessary for learning (change) to occur at all
  3. There are two kinds of anxiety associated with learning: “learning anxiety” and “survival anxiety.” Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past.  Given the power of this anxiety, Schein believes none of us would ever try something new unless we experienced the second form of anxiety, survival anxiety—the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change
  4. The basic principle is that learning only happens when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety
  5. That can happen in two ways – drive survival anxiety up or drive learning anxiety down
  6. Driving survival anxiety up is the instinctive norm for firms today but ultimately can be self defeating. However, driving learning anxiety down is extremely hard in times of change
  7. While all change is fundamentally coercive, Schein notes it is important to distinguish between forcing people to learn something they can see the need to accept and asking them to learn something that seems questionable to them. There will always be learning anxiety, but if the employee accepts the need to learn, then the process can be greatly facilitated by good training, coaching, group support, feedback, positive incentives, and so on.

I thought this was fascinating so I a few years ago tried to draw up a little checklist of initiatives associated with training specifically, which I’ve seen on projects might be used to drive both anxiety types.

Shane and Schein

I intend to revisit this to create a more general framework across all aspects of the Change Enablement Model as opposed to just ‘training’ in this instance. But hopefully you can see the principle.

For those of us who work in change management and in particular Public Sector change management there is much to reflect on here

  • The anxieties associated with change/new learnings should not be underestimated and must be recognised
  • A key early battle is to gain buy in to or acceptance of the need/value of the change. This can be done through strong leadership, a solid business case, excellent communications/change branding and the operation of an influential and equipped change network
  • Equipping those tasked with delivering change with the necessary insights on the need for change and its associated benefits is important
  • It is preferable, if more challenging, to drive learning/change anxiety down than simply turn up the survival anxiety dial
  • All our interventions associated with supporting change should be considered and measured in the light of survival and learning/change anxiety.

However, in the Public Sector, the levers to increase ‘survival anxiety’ as Schein describes it: “by threatening people with loss of jobs or valued rewards” are extremely limited and not really feasible (all part of the Public Service contract) .

That’s often challenging but it’s also what makes working in the Public Sector so rewarding for me.  Some people (Consultants and Public Sector managers) find it difficult to come to terms with facilitating or motivating centrally imposed change programs without the lever of “survival anxiety” but that is why I believe if you can facilitate change in the Public Sector you can facilitate change almost anywhere. This simple observation is also the source of much of my respect for the Public Service colleagues I have worked alongside over the last ten years across 9-10 Government Departments. Each one of them is often tasked with “getting people to change” as a result of a remote policy initiative (often without a firm benefits case or motivational leadership from the top) but with a clear acceptance that they cannot drive ‘survival anxiety’ up as a means to facilitate change.

Is it any surprise therefore that so many large scale Government change programs fail – because there is limited ‘survival anxiety’?!  We rely in the main on the inherent commitment of our Public Servants to deliver Public Sector reform/change programs as part of their wider commitment to good Government. But the levers available to them to motivate their teams or those they rely upon over and above this are definitely limited.

Of course I am oversimplifying the case – persuasion and leading change are complex issues. But I wonder if, at least in part, could this be at the heart of at least some of the difficulties in bringing about large scale transformation in the Public Sector? Is this entirely unfair? I need to reflect, but something to ponder I hope you’d agree.

Still, I look forward to my next pitch or proposal to my clients. Having been asked how I expect to “bring people with me on the change journey” I intend to turn off the lights, pipe white noise into the room (or maybe some Jedward) and strobe the following message from Scheinon the projector (intersected with subliminal images of Dustin Hoffman being ‘flossed’ in Marathon Man:

“Like prisoners of war, potential learners (must) experience so much hopelessness through survival anxiety that eventually they (will) become open to the possibility of learning”

I think that should go down a treat.

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Change – a personal experience

Someone unwittingly asked me recently to provide an opinion on the building blocks of change – and particular the ‘human considerations’ in the context of corporate Change Programmes.

When I had finished what my old mentor Louise Seymour used to refer to as a ‘Shane-a-logue’ some hours later, the person in question had vacated the scene and the lights were out. But I had a model and as anyone who’s worked with Accenture knows – that’s all you need baby.

For me the success of any corporate change programme is ultimately dependent on the composite of each individuals personal change experience. If enough individuals can embrace and adapt to the change then a critical mass will have been achieved and success will be realised. But ultimately it’s about mobilising individuals. And here’s one of my own models for consideration – at a basic level – the challenges of supporting individual change.

Shane’s Individual Change Success Model

 In this I suggested (perhaps naively – it was 2005) that there are only two fundamental people related issues which need to be addressed as part of any organisational change effort:

  1. Capability
  2. Motivation

People can either be unwilling or unable to change and possibly both. Can they change? Will they change? The challenge is to be aware of the need to address both sides of the equation and develop suitable interventions in each area.

I need to build out this embryonic model to demonstrate the sort of change activities required to support an individual’s change capability and motivation for change. But for example under the Motivational ‘pull’ area called ‘Reinforcement’ I’d expect to see:

  • A well defined, accurate and immediately accessible Business/Benefits case for the change program which those impacted can refer to in their ‘acceptance’ that this change is necessary/positive
  • Inspiring and courageous leadership
  • Inspiring and courageous communication
  • An authoritative and equipped change network.

Sometimes I see Change Plans/Stratgies that are so incredibly complex they become impregnable to even the most seasoned of Change Management professionals, never mind those who are going to be asked to change and so I still take comfort in this model as a reminder that evolutionary psychology can tell us a lot about managing people through change – even when ‘a lot’ is just a little.

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