An earlier post referred to the economist Albert Hirschman, as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker review of his recent biography (“Doubt: A Best Practice in Managing Change?” August 8). According to Gladwell, Hirschman’s most famous work posed two options for “dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions.” (If you’ve never encountered one of these, this blog may not be for you.)
The two options are “Exit” and “Voice.” I hope it doesn’t diminish the impact of this dilemma to point out that these basically amount to the familiar “fight or flight”–in reverse order. “Exit” means taking off and putting the dysfunction behind you. “Voice” means staying and working for something better right where you are.
I wonder whether in recent times the progressively shorter tenure most people have in their organizations–I’m told that this is down to four or five years on average, compared to the double-digits that were the norm several decades ago–may be a result of a bias toward “Exit.” I often hear that this shorter tenure is associated with younger generations, and that certainly aligns with what we hear and what we see about attention spans and TMI as a way of being.
Hirschman, however, believed strongly in “Voice.” Not only because this stance conformed with his personal values but because he thought that only if enough people choose this option do our organizations and institutions improve.
Are too many people too quick to vote with their feet? And does this necessarily mean a decline in the quality of our institutions?
What’s the long term impact if leaders implicitly or explicitly welcome “Exit” strategies instead of nurturing those who Stay Put and Speak Up? Aren’t these the fully engaged employees we all say we want more of?
It’s tempting to think that doubt is the enemy of visionary leadership and transformational change. Maybe that needs another look.
Malcolm Gladwell recently reviewed a new biography of the economist Albert O. Hirschman in The New Yorker (“The Gift of Doubt,” June 24, 2013). Hirschman was “a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned.” One theme of his work is the creativity that emerges–under the right circumstances–when things fail to work out as planned. As Gladwell describes it:
The entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s [sic] attempting is not risky. Then, trapped in mid-mountain, people discover the truth–and, because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.
Success, in other words, comes at least sometimes from failure. Or in Nietzche’s dictum, “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
If, as Hirschman believed, this is a general principle–if, in other words, Murphy’s law ALWAYS applies–isn’t there a lesson here for change managers? Why should we be surprised when the plan doesn’t go well? Why should dealing with that eventuality produce a back-up or contingency plan, instead of being an essential part of the original planning? Why do we hope that, with heroic change-champions and effective cheerleading, that we will beat the odds?
While no one likes a nay-sayer, perhaps some quotient of doubt–“this may not work”; “things may go wrong”; “we may not be anticipating all the potential problems”–is essential to effective execution of change. And what if the realistic assessment of doubt and the diplomatic but direct communication of risk are as important a part of the change agent’s role as optimism, confidence, and persuasion?