High-Velocity Culture Change

Review and discussion essay.

[I wrote this essay in the early stages of a battle for the soul of an educational institution I once worked for and cared deeply about. It was published in a blog the faculty opposition set up with all of the appurtenances of an academic journal (anonymous review, editorial board, etc). These battles are now ancient history, and few of the dramatis personae are still there. I reprint it here with names suppressed because I have no interest in pursuing old grudges; the essay may be of some use to those fighting similar battles, because the pathology in higher ed administration delineated here is hardly a thing of the past. I am very proud of this essay, both as a review and a polemic, and people at the time told me it was well written.]

High-Velocity Culture Change.  A Handbook for Managers, by Price Pritchett and Ron Pound (2007: Pritchett), 48 pp. $7.95. ISBN 978-0-944002-13-1.

I. Review.

This volume, published in the heady days just before the recent depression [of 2008-09], is a manual for managers faced with merger integration and major organizational change.  When one company has been taken over by another, it may be necessary to forcibly realign it with the procedures and values of the new management. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that this volume has much in common with Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Pritchett and Pound, whose bread is buttered by consulting and facilitating corporate culture change, understandably focus on the process, describe it with élan, and, naturally, aren’t skeptical about it.  Culture change—the faster, the better—is assumed to be a good thing, and the human toll—which they acknowledge—is thus a necessary evil in a good cause.

This seems to me to bespeak a typical problem in using consultants. They come in for a day (so to speak), are not affectively tied to the existing culture or mission, and offer recommendations from the narrow viewpoint of their specialty.  This may result in advice that is excellent from one restricted point of view (solvency, perhaps), but quite poor or even unconscionable from another.  Our authors, of necessity caring no more about any one mission or culture than another (their business being just to dismantle them quickly), offer their methods like sharp knives to anyone able to afford them.  What the client does with the knife—well, that’s not their problem.

To avoid overstating the case, I will stipulate that there are, among the 32 page-long aphoristic pieces of advice offered here, a minority that are uncontroversial and inoffensive. Indeed, if you can live with yourself while doing hurtful things, this book may describe effective modes of social engineering, at least in a corporate environment.

I have given this booklet the close reading needed for a review because it was issued to chairs and other program heads at a “leadership seminar” held on 6 March in [name in original deleted] University’s [name in original deleted] Ballroom. When I read it in the knowledge that it had been given to the people who supervise our work I was indignantly angry for three reasons.  1)  I perceive this book to be poisonous and inhuman;  2) this book assumes a corporate context alien to academia, even though universities are admittedly organized as corporations and have boards to which the administration answers;  3) this book, and the principles and methods it espouses, may be taken to reflect, even if indirectly, the opinions, aspirations, and proposed methods of some part of [name in original deleted]’s administration in dealing with the change they think required by the strategic plan.  They wouldn’t have spent the money to hand it out otherwise!  At the very least, it must reflect thinking about how chairs and program heads should deal with faculty and staff, and even that is very problematic.

The booklet assumes the organization faces an existential threat, but does not specify or define it.  The management asserts that the organization is in imminent danger of going under, so the end of corporate survival justifies the means recommended by the authors.  But the draconian advice offered here might seem like a tempting apple to some managers even if they are not facing immediate extinction.  It offers a quick, expedient way to force new organizational behaviors in line with management’s vision, allowing the managers to (as British colonial administrators reputedly said) “never apologize, never explain.”  And really, explaining in detail, justifying, and compromising is a bore and gets in the way of the next promotion.  So the booklet authorizes the managers to invent a crisis.

“If your work group is already shaken up, you can take advantage of that situation.  Otherwise, you must fracture the old culture yourself.  That’s how you create the opening for change.  If there isn’t a crisis already, management has to create one.” (6, my italics)  Plato (Republic 3.414e-415c) would have called this strategy the ‘noble lie.’  In his case, in order to realign people’s loyalties from their families to the republic, he proposed telling all the children the noble lie (γενναῖον ψεῦδος) that they had no parents, substituting the republic.

But our authors are no Platos, and a manufactured crisis is a big lie.  If the big lie doesn’t bother you because you’ve persuaded yourself you’re on the side of the angels, there is still the following practical problem.  When your lie is detected, Mr. Manager, even if the truth behind it may be hard to know, we will naturally employ the old Roman legal principle falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus: if you are found lying in one case, we’re entitled to assume that you are lying in all cases.  We will assume that you will directly lie—or do so less directly, through mental reservation—to avoid opposition, justifying your ideas, and compromise. Like all self-respecting people, we will despise you for lying to us, and your ability to get us to follow you will be reduced. This is why transparency and simple honesty remain the best policies, and why this book is fundamentally ethically compromised.

The obvious question of whether management is following a good course is sidestepped by the booklet’s surprising assumption that management can see into the future. “A quick scan of the future tells us, for example, that the organization’s very survival depends on speed.” (4, my italics)  The managers are romantically envisioned as supermen (and women) who have a mystic intuitive knowledge about the future denied to the rest of us.  By sheer force of will they will lead the organization, and they must not be soft or humane.  Nowhere is it assumed that time-consuming mathematical projections, introspection, or ethical reasoning have been taken into consideration, speed being of the essence.

“It’s time for tough love. Caring harder.  Caring enough to take the company through the tough, unpopular struggle of culture change so it can survive.” (8)  The manager, who may well care no more than to be seen to act decisively in the short run so as to position herself for a quick move to a more lucrative job higher up or somewhere else, is cast as the protagonist in a Kulturkampf and her adversaries are the counterrevolutionaries who defend the bad old corporate culture.  Elsewhere in the booklet humans in the organization with differing opinions of where it should go and how it should behave are reductively glossed as “whiners, complainers, and ‘squeaky wheels’.” (12)  All of this is rhetorical morale boosting to persuade the manager that he is on the side of the angels and makes the human cost bearable emotionally by demonizing the opposition.  This is the rhetoric of wartime.

High-velocity culture change requires collaboration, and here it is the authors wheel out the naked apparatus of social engineering:  carrots for those who line up correctly and applying the stick to those who resist change. (12)  “Don’t contaminate the reward system by giving to everybody whether they’re deserving or not.  People may feel “entitled” to raises, promotions, perks, appreciation, attention, etc., but now is the time to destroy the entitlement mind set.  Put all rewards out of the reach of those people who don’t contribute to the new culture.” (12)  Read that again:  merit doesn’t count, or rather, it has conveniently been redefined to conformity with the new order.  This is of course problematic for a place of learning like [name in original deleted], where what constitutes merit is objectively established from centuries of best practices, and can be easily controlled by looking at other institutions.

Culture change through social engineering has been tried and failed spectacularly.  Have the authors never heard of Pruitt Igoe?  With all the best intentions in the world, that great modernist project to make people better by imposing a new scientifically planned environment on them ended up having to be dynamited to the ground, doomed as it was by human fallibility and insufficient resources.  And it is nothing short of a revolution the authors seek here.

“A culture revolution calls for liberation of the people.” (18) Such a ‘year-zero’ revolution seemed good to The Chairman and it seems good to the authors, too.  In a very offensive passage, those persons who might have other ideas about where the organization might go and how are reductively objectified as “bureaucracy.” (18)  Such human beings, or rather, the ‘bureaucracy,’ constitutes “a formidable adversary—sneaky, well positioned, self-righteous, skilled at justifying its existence.”  It is “the Bill of Rights for your old corporate culture.” (18)

The Bill of Rights metaphor, deployed contemptuously, is telling:  The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, are monumental and essential protections of human freedom.  The metaphor is clear:  the new man of the future (that’s you, Mr. Manager), led by his superhuman vision of an inherently unknowable future, is cast in the role of unilaterally destroying fundamental protections for his (sneaky, entitled, etc.) inferiors. The choice of metaphor once again reveals the superman mentality.  Even Satan (in Shaw’s Man and Superman, Act 3) knows better:  “beware of the pursuit of the superhuman:  it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the human.”

Someone must get hurt in culture change.  In fact, the simile invoked is of “walking through a war zone.”  It is a war (as we saw above), and you, Ms. Manager, will see “misery.  Wreckage. Trauma. And casualties.”   And let’s remember that those casualties are human beings with expectations, feelings, and perhaps a family to feed.  So how many casualties?  The authors think that “a good 20% will buy into the culture change immediately.”  These are the collaborators who scent opportunity amidst the general fear and confusion.  50% will be “undecided,” and “30% will be anti-change, pure and simple, and that attitude isn’t likely to go away.” (22)

The authors once again use the soothing balm of reductive language to demonize the human beings who act upon a competing vision:  “anti-change, pure and simple.”  But taking a firm line against some proposed change is no more “anti-change, pure and simple” than being vegetarian makes one ‘anti-food, pure and simple.’  There are defensible, non-negotiable principles (religious ones, at [name in original deleted], and loyalty to the long and successful academic tradition) which some kinds of change might disfigure or eviscerate. Indeed, those principles might actually supersede mere survival, though we’d hope it would never come to that.

But to demonize opposition makes it easier for managers to “. . . get rid of them.  If you can’t release them, at least remove them from the mainstream.”  There is no room for compassion here, only heartless expediency:  “Casualties cause fear.  But that’s better than complacency.  At least fear ratchets up the emotional energy, and you can use that to fuel the change effort . . . . Be willing to sacrifice those people whose attitude and behavior could sabotage the culture change.  Better to lose them than to put the whole company’s survival at risk.”  (all quotations in this paragraph, 22)  So quick battlefield executions of up to 30% of the troops is justified by the end of “survival.”

Start with a bang!  “Early moves must be bold, dramatic, totally out of character so far as the old culture is concerned.  It only makes it harder if you try to ease into things.  Determine your best point of attack, and go cold turkey.  Never waver.”  (24)  ‘Cold turkey’ is another revealing metaphor.  Cold turkey from what?  Not drugs, surely.  Pity?  Compunction? Humility?  Decency?  Those would seem to be what the authors want our manager to forsake.

Machiavelli (The Prince §8) likewise recommended to “those who have obtained a principality by wickedness” to get the executions over with early:  “… it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits.”  Machiavelli was evidently clear about rewarding collaborators, too.

The ultimate metric of success—and moral of the story, if you will—are “dollar signs.”  “It’s a language everyone understands.”  Work satisfaction and even employee health is expendable.  “Morale craters.  Attitudes sour.  Trust evaporates quicker than an early morning fog. Stress levels hit all-time highs.”  Given the negative impact on health by stress, this seems an unconscionable result of culture change.  “. . . fire nonperformers and offload anti-change people,” we are urged, “. . . bring in a new breed.”  “New hires, since they haven’t been nesting in the existing trees, are willing to hack down the cultural forest.” (all quotations in this paragraph, 32, italics in the original)

What are people who embrace the management but have tender emotions toward the organization’s existing culture?  Traitors.  “You’re better off with aloyalty to the culture, because it needs to be a moving target, constantly changing to keep up with the outside world.” (36)  Loyalty will cause people to make economically inexpedient moves to benefit what they admire.  Most professors I know work harder and longer than any conceivable compensation or reward they might get;  the academic profession (as opposed to the small fraction of it represented by teaching in classrooms as a specified duty), at least, is founded upon an uncompensated labor of love that stems from loyalty to the ideas of sharing knowledge and helping form good, useful citizens.

In the end, “significant culture change should start to occur in weeks or months.  Not years.  Start out fast and keep trying to pick up speed.  Leave skid marks.” (44)  No room here for discernment, deliberation, recognition of false starts, learning new things that might cast doubt upon the chosen course.

II. Discussion.

I think it is fundamentally misguided to use this book in an academic environment, its inhuman methods aside.  Faculty 1) are trained to think critically and can scent lies and false information;  2) can point to a successful culture that has spanned nearly a millennium;  3) share governance with the administration;  4) are often protected by tenure.  We can’t be easily (or at least cheaply) gotten rid of as corporate personnel can, and bad behavior that disempowers us may cause us to withdraw our capital (which the administration needs to fuel the academic enterprise) and invest it somewhere else more satisfying.  Administrators can do little without faculty’s willing collaboration, and the latter have extra-organizational access to sanctions in the form of publicity and exposure of administrative bad behavior–see for example the recent fight over health benefits at Penn State.

It’s a worrying enough sign of possible ethical disarray in our administration that it endorses this book by paying for and distributing copies of it.  But to hand this book out to (for example) department chairs also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of academic culture.  Except sometimes in professional schools, chairs, normally drawn from the faculty, complete their terms and return to the ranks; this important check on abuse of power, which goes back to the Roman republic, ensures that those who behave as recommended by this book will face appropriate sanctions from their peers when they get thrown back in the hopper after their term.  Abuse of power is politically and socially suicidal even if somehow condoned by the administration.

Though I am unaware of it having been said yet, I do look for deprecation of the seriousness of handing this booklet out in a confession that the volume had been issued on the basis of its useful-seeming title alone without adequate scrutiny of the contents.  Just the problem with ‘high-velocity culture change’:  the unsuitability of this booklet to guide any kind of culture change at an institution like [name in original deleted] is pretty clear (as I hope to have shown) to anyone who has the basic moral and ethical alertness we aim to instill in our undergraduates.  And who is willing to take the time to examine the moral implications of our use of the knives we’ve bought.

We actually damage our brand, I think, by administratively endorsing a booklet like this in the way I’ve described above.  The disjuncture between our words (“Our culture is Jesuit, Catholic, and academic”) and deeds (endorsing this book) runs the risk of making the culture of the university seem like window dressing, or worse, a cover.  It attracts customers, but the implication is that it is to be eschewed or engineered into an eviscerated, glossy, insubstantial form by administrators who find it impractical or inconvenient when faced with hard financial times–just when we need the ethical and moral skills embodied in our culture to be at their sharpest.

People make mistakes, of course, and I, at least, do not much care to go after those who chose and distributed this booklet.  It is merely a symptom of moral indecision at [name in original deleted].  I do think that if the Jesuit, Catholic, academic mission is to count for much at all at [name in original deleted], our administration must unreservedly, decisively, and most of all publicly condemn and disavow the inhuman principles at the center of this book and promise to avoid their use in any aspect of culture change here whatsoever.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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