Ashamed of the present, ready for the future?

In her blog Heather Stagl recently addressed the effect of change on people’s feeling of self-worth and on feelings of shame; in particular focusing on a key observation by Brené Brown in her ACMP 2016 Conference keynote:


“The #1 cause of shame at work is fear of irrelevance. The #1 cause of fear of irrelevance is change.”

Nowhere more does this apply than in the field of IT innovation. Heather offers invaluable insight into addressing this concern, principally with an eye to ensuring people feel they are part of the future story. I think we can supplement this excellent advice with a couple more observations.

We’ve designed an intelligent system to replace the mediocre mess you created


It’s really useful to have someone like Dr. Brown put in human terms the consequences of some of the concepts we learn as change practitioners.  It’s too easy to see the models, equations and cycles and forget the humanity of the people involved, especially in one’s early stages of practicing change management.

The accepted wisdom: make the present unappealing…

The first insight gained by new change managers is often the Kubler-Ross change curve. As the old expression goes: “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. When [incorrectly] viewed as a linear process and tied to the time-pressure of a project, it’s too easy to see the curve as a set of milestones. The temptation is to achieve by knocking down the milestones as rapidly as possible; which sponsor or PM would not be happy to hear “we’ve nailed the fear & anger stages ahead of schedule”?

The second insight gained is often as a response to wanting to execute the first: “OK, so they need to get through that curve, how can I get that to happen pronto?” Often the most compelling offered solution is Gleicher’s Formula for Change:

C = (ABD) > X.

Put simply, people change when together the current state is sufficiently dissatisfying, the future state sufficiently appealing and the steps to that state are clear enough to outweigh the cost. Combined with K-R the solution presents itself: trash the past & current (burning platform), make the future look rosy and tell the people how they need to be different to get there. More than this, it’s tempting to assume that the better the future looks and the worse the present is portrayed will correlate to the speed of transition.


…what is understood: you fools have allowed the platform to burn

What Dr. Brown observes is the human fallout of applying this reasoning without addressing the personal attachment people will have with the current state, and their internal doubts for their ability to change.

With respect to the former, when we portray the current state as wholly undesirable, we risk making the story of someone’s time in that activity until now appear irrelevant, perhaps even negative or shameful. The vast majority of people who are broadly content with their position will ascribe their position to the actions they personally took. Those who are not so happy will largely believe they took all the right steps, but were limited by outside agents; be that luck, their manager, the system, etc.

When we are too passionate with generating dissatisfaction we are communicating that their actions, which have bought them to the very point they are today, were not good enough. We are challenging that self-image and narrative. At best this will be deflected (“I was doing the right things, the rest of the team got us into this mess”) which leads to other forms of ‘resistance’. At worst it will lead to self-doubt, depression and shame. We simply must pay respect to the past when addressing change, and provide a positive message that they didn’t do the wrong things. Instead it is the need that changed and they are the perfect people to address this change as they have achieved so much until now.

Your task: turn this absolute stinking mess into the perfect org. Go!

Just as important is to understand that unless we address people’s perception of self efficacy, we trap them in a prison. Following the burning platform model for gaining dissatisfaction will actually reduce this perception of empowerment in two keys ways.

We have already knocked their confidence by saying “your best efforts until now have got us in this mess” or “you are an actor, not a director, in your own story”. How can we then expect them to think they have the ability to control their own future? When we enter the room announcing a shiny computer that, with some specifications that can be gained in hours, is able to replace them almost entirely, what do we expect?

And as observed, efforts to remove all doubt – by painting the present as ridiculous. hopeless, illegitimate; and the future as nirvana – presents the change as a nearly insurmountable challenge. How’s that helping people feel they have the power in their hands?

Let’s look at a theoretical case for change: a process is complex, has too many steps and takes too long. This is sold as “we have 1500% too many systems, we’re worst in class for lead time, we’re failing, hopeless and hapless”. The tone sounds familiar, right? This gives only two possible reflections for the individual: either you were part of the creation of that mess, or you weren’t in a position to do anything and little has changed there. Either way self-efficacy is slashed to zero and further pummeled by training that shows an angelic “right way” to do things and “the desired behaviours” (because those you currently have just aren’t acceptable you naughty boy/girl (seriously, anyone who uses the “desired behaviours” phrase in any interaction needs to have some behavioural sessions themselves)).

Too often I have seen change handled as a simple “make the past unpleasant and the future attractive” Pavlovian exercise. The results for the people, the human beings, is often shame. That’s just not acceptable. We’re meant to be helping. We should take care when using these tools, and remember we’re working with people.

So, that’s enough shaming for us Change Practitioners. We have the right tools and we have the right intent at heart, it’s that we’re learning as a profession and we don’t always get it quite right. Next blog, ideas on ways to get it right more often.

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