Change Management and Existentialism

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, who was born more than 2500 years ago, said that “The only constant is change”. This is maybe true, but Theresa M. Welbourne in 2014 also underlined that “Change is escalating, and the current models of managing change do not seem to be working well”. Interestingly, in order to handle change in organizations consultants applied grief management models because they saw a similarity between grieving in general and grieving loss of a job or department.

Since this approach starting in the ‘60s is said to be outdated nowadays, she proposed three main guidelines for managers:

  1. “Quit thinking about change as something that is negative.”
  2. ”Stop talking about change management as an event.”
  3. ”Use new models and move away from those based on grief management.”

Beside moving away from traditional change management strategies, in 2012 Robert J. Blomme and Kirsten Bornebroek- Te Lintelo also proposed using notions from existentialism as a novel approach to have a better understanding of behavior in organizations.

“I have lately been told of a lady who, whenever she lets slip a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness, excuses herself by exclaiming, “I believe I am becoming an existentialist.”” – Jean-Paul Sartre, in a lecture at Club Maintenant in Paris, 1945.

The authors argue that organizations are social networks in which people are motivated to participate because of their need to reduce equivocality or ambiguous conditions. This is influenced by existential fears and to avoid them, people make sense of their environment by using past experiences and contexts, which leads to stability in organizations. Since the sense-making process is limited by anxiety, they examine the four existential fears – as a base to describe conditions for change – proposed by the American existential psychiatrist, Irvin D. Yalom: death, freedom, existential isolation and meaninglessness. What is the relationship between these themes and change?

Death: Although confronting the foundation of our existence can be painful, organizations should accept their finiteness which would result in decreased anxiety thus allowing new organizational behavior to emerge.

Freedom: Since we are responsible for the course of our life and our actions, organizations should provide autonomy for their members to follow their aspirations “to align these with the identity or being of the organization constructed by everyone in it.”

Existential isolation: It is important to establish the feeling of inclusion to provide a sense of belonging. Although relationships cannot eliminate isolation, they can counterbalance existential pain.

Meaninglessness: We need meaning, but the world is indifferent. This is the human absurdity according to Albert Camus. The organization can provide a bigger picture that the members are looking for in order to allow for a mature relationship between the individuals and the organization resulting in more effective contribution.

If these conditions are reflected upon – the authors propose – anxiety from these four existential fears can be reduced inducing change and increased adaptability of the organization. Although it can be comforting to identify sources of anxiety and their relation to change, it can be still difficult to find appropriate ways to implement them in real life, not just in organizations but regarding individuals. In “The Myth of Sisyphus” described by Camus the gods had condemned Sisyphus to roll a rock up a mountain, while the rock would fall back every time because of its own weight.

Camus concludes “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

If Sisyphus can be happy, we might have a chance too.



No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply