January 4, 2007
New Year is an interesting time if you are a researcher with an interest in disappointment. All around me, I see people creating New Year’s resolution lists – many of those people know in their hearts that it is an academic exercise. Others are determined to stick to their guns and make real and lasting changes.
The academic and scholarly world is full of research on “change” – how to do it, how to manage it, how to avoid it, how to surrender to it. New Year is the time when we’re all confronted (in a cultural sense) with the opportunity to opt in or opt out. Like many people, I have a never-changing list of things I want to do differently each year. The ritual of (again) putting down familiar projects (must get fit … must….) is good for a laugh if nothing else – but what happens that those lists get recycled? Why is it in our personal or work lives so difficult to be different?
We don’t like change…unconsciously we do our best to avoid it. Change means difference, difference means unfamiliarity and unfamiliarity means anxiety, therefore staying the same is the safest bet. We’re sophisticated animals when it comes to sabotaging change. Ultimately we’re afraid … and taking any kind of leap in the dark with that kind of anxiety is sometimes too much to ask.
One of the ways in which we sabotage change is to create an image so idealised that it’s impossible to reach. Those New Year lists with a new you – fit, healthy and all in under six months may look fantastic – but they probably aren’t achievable in that time frame, so before we start we’ve undermined our chances of success. But keeping that perfect picture perfect is also important. If we keep the image perfect then we always have it…we can protect it by never trying to reach it – if we did try and subsequently failed then the image would be lost – we’d be confronted with reality. We can’t bear to disappoint ourselves so we create sophisticated ruses to maintain the idealisation and avoid the disappointment.
Many change agents create the picture perfect ideal of what the organisation will look like in its new form. Their task is to substitute what is known (and may or may not be working) with an idealised image of how it could be. Like New Year resolutions – the intention is worthy but the attempts to get there may be rocky because results don’t come as quickly or as packaged as we imagine them. Being idealistic as distinct from realistic only increases the gap between both and raises the level of disappointment. Idealisation is a way of avoiding consequences. Those consequences are relational – it may be easier to have a fictionalised idea of ourselves and others rather than enter into reality checked relationships with real people, in real situations with real flaws.
So my New Year resolutions have an “ideal” column and a “real” column – there’s a gap between them and I’ll navigate and negotiate my way between both. I’m not willing to let go of the ideal but neither am I willing to sabotage my chances of getting it by not trying – it’s going to be an interesting 12 months!