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Never Underestimate The Power Of Identity

2023 October 29
by Greg Satell

In the 1990s, western-style liberal democracy was triumphant. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Cold War had been won. Teams of diplomats and consultants rushed to spread the Washington Consensus, an agreed upon set of reforms that poor countries were pressured to undertake by their richer brethren.

Francis Fukuyama noted at the time that we had reached an endpoint in history, when one model had achieved dominance over all others. Yet even as he laid out the rational case, he invoked the ancient Greek concept of thymos, or “spiritedness,” to warn that even at the end of history, there would be some who would insist on going their own way, no matter the consequences.

That’s why any change, even if provably good, noble and just, will inevitably incur resistance. It’s a simple truth that humans form attachments to people, ideas and other things and, when those attachments are threatened, we see it as an outright attack on our identity and lash out. That’s why identity needs to be at the center of any change strategy, if it is to succeed.

Triggering Resistance

Imagine this scene. You are in a meeting to discuss a proposal. There is an active discussion and, over the course of an hour, the group steadily moves toward a consensus. Then, as you’re moving on to discuss next steps and close the meeting, somebody who hadn’t spoken up during the entire hour suddenly has a hissy fit and melts down in the middle of the conference room.

Let’s think about what happened underneath the surface. When the idea was initially proposed, that person had such a visceral reaction to it that they couldn’t even articulate why they were so against it. Nevertheless, being such a disastrous idea in their eyes, they were sure it would get derailed along the way. When that didn‘t happen, it triggered an explosion.

There’s a couple of things that we can take away from this. The first is that it was the initial success of moving to next steps that triggered them and their inappropriate reaction pretty much assured that the proposal would move forward. So one way of dealing with resistance is to quietly build traction. If you can resist the urge to engage or attack your opposition directly, they will eventually feel the need to lash out and discredit themselves.

Another important point to consider is that people rarely melt down in conference rooms. Usually, they hold their composure and then go quietly sabotaging the idea in the hallways. Your most active opposition are usually not the ones voicing concerns. Most often, they find more surreptitious ways of undermining an initiative.

Shifting Identities

Just because people build attachments doesn’t mean that they need to be permanent aspects of their identity. In Immunity to Change, Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, discuss their decades of research into how people build competing commitments based on how they see themselves. Their work shows that greater self awareness can break the spell.

For example, “David” was a senior leader who had taken on greater responsibility and desperately needed to delegate. As much as he saw how important it was for him to hand off projects and give more autonomy to his people, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. It was almost as if he was actively sabotaging his own objective.

As it turned out, David had a somewhat hardscrabble upbringing and identified himself as a “hands on” manager. It was important for him to do “real work” and not just be “overhead.” So every time he tried to delegate, it felt like he was getting away from his hardworking roots and becoming something he didn’t want to be.

The problem was solved once David saw that the change he needed to undertake involved his own identity. He began to see another role for himself, that of an enabler and a coach, empowering his people. He was able to see their accomplishments as his own. It didn’t happen automatically—it took real work—but it can be done.

Designing A Dilemma 

I once had a six-month assignment to restructure the sales and marketing operations of a troubled media company and the sales director was a real stumbling block. She never overtly objected, but would  just nod her head and then quietly sabotage progress. For example, she promised to hand over the clients she worked directly with to her staff, but never seemed to get around to it.

It was obvious that she intended to slow-walk everything until the six months were over and then return everything back to the way it was. As a longtime senior employee, she had considerable political capital within the organization and, because she was never directly insubordinate, creating a direct confrontation with her would be risky and unwise.

So rather than create a conflict, I designed a dilemma. I arranged with the CEO of a media buying agency for one of the salespeople to meet with a senior buyer and take over the account. The sales director had two choices. She could either let the meeting go ahead and lose her grip on the department or try to derail the meeting. She chose the latter and was fired for cause. Once she was gone, her mismanagement became obvious and sales shot up.

Dilemma actions have been around for at least a century. One early example was Alice Paul’s Silent Sentinels, who picketed the Woodrow Wilson’s White House with his own quotes in 1917. More recently, the tactic has been the subject of increasing academic interest. What’s becoming clear is that these actions share clear design principles that can be replicated in almost any context.

Key to the success of a dilemma action is that it is seen as a constructive act rooted in a shared value. In the case of the Sales Director, she had agreed to give up her accounts and setting up the meeting was aligned with that agreement. That’s what created the dilemma. She had to choose between violating the shared value or giving up her resistance.

Creating A Larger, Integrated Identity

Our identity and sense of self drives a lot of what we see and do, yet we rarely examine these things because we spend most of our time with people who are a lot like us, who live in similar places and experience similar things. Our innate perceptions and beliefs seem normal and those of outsiders strange, because our social networks shape us that way.

That’s why we often see so much resistance to change. People get invested in the status quo. They work within it, follow its rules and achieve some things. Those achievements become part of their identity and to reject the means in which their present self arose is, in some sense, to reject a part of themselves.

Yet our identities aren’t fixed. They grow and evolve over time. We routinely choose to add facets to our identity, while shedding others, changing jobs, moving neighborhoods, breaking off some associations as we take on others. “Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate,” Francis Fukuyama wrote in his book on the subject.

It is at this nexus of identity and purpose that creativity and innovation reside, because when we learn to collaborate with others who possess knowledge, skills and perspectives that we don’t, new possibilities emerge to achieve greater things. To make that possible, however, we need to support the identities of those around us, so that we can build the shared purpose upon which we can build a shared future.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by davisuko on Unsplash

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