I recently received an email to inform me that I had been granted access to my old LinkedIn account which I was barred from about 12 months ago (I am still unsure whether it was my nudity or my politics, I think probably both). I’m a curious creature, so despite my contempt for the professional networking platform, I logged on and had a look around. Same old, same old, no change in the topics being discussed, the courses being peddled, the expertise being spruked, maybe a bit more of the ‘soft stuff’? But overall, no real change. Had the last three years had no impact on these people? The only difference I noticed was in the number of people claiming to be experts in change management and organisational transformation. This I noticed because that was my area of specialty as an academic. I can’t lie, I wont avoid it, it triggered me. And so I wrote a piece, because that’s what writers do when they feel something, they write. Here it is, would love to read your comments on this one.
Reflecting on Change Expertise: What makes an expert?
When I first started teaching ‘transformation leadership’ at an Australian university, almost no-one had the word ‘transformation’ in their job title. Now, maybe five or six years later, many ‘experts’ in change and transformation are using their job title to identify themselves.
Expertise in a field means that we have a depth of knowledge that far exceeds ubiquitous knowledge, and is more technical and adaptive than interactionary knowledge (Collins and Evans, 2007). An expert in a field can contribute new knowledge through insight, experimentation and collaboration. They can do more than tell you about their topic of expertise, they can invite you in and show you how it works, teach you to play with it and maybe, with practice, how to master it for yourself.
We all have the capacity for expertise, particularly when we find our passion. With years of focused study, practice and other explorations, we develop a dexterity with the tools and an intuition for the resources required for our craft. This is not a one-course and you’re up to date type of knowledge (this is interactionary knowledge). Contributory expertise, the type that can confidently and justly contribute to systems design and solutions, is not something that our current workplace culture encourages or nurtures. Deep expertise in change and transformation requires an environment of autonomy and a culture of self-determination that too few Australian office workers enjoy.
For those few change experts who have had the opportunity and motivation, to undertake a journey of self-discovery, of quiet observation, of deep, radical personal transformation, for themselves, the topics of change and transformation take on new meaning.
And for those of us who cannot not chase and embrace change, the weirdos, the nutters, those who let go when everyone else is clinging on for dear life…. change is our life force. Without change there is no growth, and without growth, life is stunted, not fully experienced. Without change we feel repressed, unable to explore our potential.
In my experience, these people, who live and breathe change, aren’t that common, especially in the modern Australian workplace. So how many experts are there really? Because, is it just me, or are there now ‘agents of change’ everywhere?
Change is the new black…?
My observation is that true change makers, those who are disrupting the system in a radical way, rarely have the words ‘change’ or ‘transformation’ in their job title. Increasingly, they are finding themselves outside of ‘the system’ due to the ‘great resignation’, menopause, burnout, trauma, bullying, racism, coercive control, and the other systemic symptoms of capitalism, corporatisation and toxic masculinity. And this is why so many change and transformation initiatives over the many decades of trying, have failed. That 70-80%.
Collectively, we have failed to address the cause of the resistance to change.
People like those who can’t see the need for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
People like those who refuse to embrace preferred pronouns.
People like those who are angry that men are ‘losing’ jobs to women.
People like those who think women like Brittney Higgins and Grace Tame should shut up…
People who just want everyone to ‘follow the rules’ so they feel safe.
People with change resistant ideology.
If change scares you into inertia, you cannot be an agent of change. If change makes you ego-defensive, you cannot be an agent of change. If you feel defiant in the face of change….you can’t be an agent of change. And you most certainly, in my eyes, can’t be an expert in transformation.
As a pre-requisite to being an agent of change, you must at the very least, be curious and non-judgmental.
Critics, conservatives and corporate stalwarts can not, fundamentally, by their very nature, be agents of change. They are defenders of the status quo. And here is the source of the so called ‘culture war’, and the paradox that ensues among many change management and transformation professionals. Every change manager thinks they can be successful at change, but very few are able to take the dive that leads to expertise and instead, huff and puff their way to failure and change fatigue. Meanwhile, everyone else is fatigued by their failure…
We live in a society that teaches us that success at school or work is success as a person. And so now that everyone is talking about change, we all want to be seen to be doing it, to be good at it, to be the best at it, to be an expert! Give me the work, give me the promotion, give me the pay rise! But don’t make me change who I am or how I work…
From the perspective of human potential, through the lens of existential philosophy, and many traditions of psychology and spirituality, this messaging around success is fundamentally misleading and actually creates resistance to change. As well as repressing creativity and thwarting authenticity. Yet still we play the game of show and tell, happily swapping gold stars for the ‘thumbs up’ emoji, proudly enjoying the praise of our peers. And there is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, if you aspire to more, if you crave actual growth, if you wonder about the maturity of your consciousness and whether your potential could be far greater than you currently realise, then the typical modern workplace is not for you. Simply living up to the expectations of your peers or your manager, or even the person holding the proverbial cheque book, is unlikely to help you find what you seek, if you truly wish to understand change and transformation.
Radical change, aka transformation, is by definition, an act of defiance. An act of rebellion against what is, and that must be accompanied by an irreverence for norms and tradition and for what is expected. This type of change does not come from tinkering within the policies and procedures of an organisation. It comes from the deep reflection and grounded humility of a leader who has taken the time to wonder about the extent of their knowledge, and their ability to truly contribute to the culture of their organisation. Someone who feels so passionate about the need for change that they can work through any resistance the ego might pose. Someone who recognises that power is not the currency of the future.
I did my doctoral research in the years 1997-2001, before ‘climate change’ was in common use, before ‘global warming’ had been censored. I wanted to understand how narrative around the national economy influenced people’s decision making with regard to the natural environment; i.e. how money influences people’s behaviour. What I found was that political ideology was a far stronger predictor than economic circumstances with regard to how ‘environmentally friendly’ an individual was willing to be (Hodgkinson and Innes, 2000).
And now, more than 20 years on, after a decade of an Australian conservative government that operated firmly within a corporate paradigm, I see again how political ideology is a far greater predictor of benevolent action than economic circumstance. There are so many examples from around the world we could cite here.
And so I argue, any ‘change agent’ operating purely from within the conservative-corporate paradigm, an ideology in and of itself, is incapable of being an expert in radical change or transformation. Simply because of positioning within society, the immersion within a culture and adherence to an ideology that is all consuming and inherently change resistant. It is not from stupidity or any wrong-doing or inadequacy on their personal behalf. These people simply drank the Kool Aid when they were told, and never thought to spit it out.
To truly have a systems perspective, you must be able to see the system both from within and without, and unless you have spent time ‘without’, you are unable to truly see the system from all perspectives. From school to university, to graduate job to C-suite executive; this is not change but a linear decent into an enveloping ideology. What we have believed to be climbing up is actually a sliding down; our career pathways, a long slippery slope into successful ideological conformity and compliance (exactly as predicted by early research in social influence and obedience to authority, e.g. Milgram and Gudehus, 1978).
And so, as someone who has practiced, taught, observed, studied and facilitated deep change and transformation for more than a couple of decades, my suggestion to anyone wanting to be an ‘expert’ in change and transformation is: get out.
(They ended the Stanford Prison experiment early for a very good reason).
Get out of the system, as often as you can and for as long as you can. Learn what it is like for small business operators. Learn what life is like for those living on farms and in rural areas. Not so you can go back to your air conditioned office and write up your consultation report, but so you actually understand a different way of life. A different way of living that is completely beyond the corporate world. See through the eyes of those who do not see the sense in the way you spend your day, completely disconnected from any means of self-sufficiency or self-sustenance. Obedient to an invisible authority, meeting the expectations of peer conformity.
Take a walk in the city, not to find the best coffee or to stretch your legs, but to understand what life is like on the streets. For those trapped in the cycle of dependency, unable to see a way out. Meditate on the possibility that you too are dependent and unable to see a way out. That money or power is your drug, and your career, your workplace, is your dealer, the system, their supplier. Dependent on that which numbs you to the rage of frustration that hums beneath the surface of passive compliance. You do it because you have to. Because life depends on it.
Being an agent of radical change, an expert in transformation, bears the responsibility of influence. As such, an expert must be willing to take full accountability for their shadow, their dependencies and their ideologies, without this self awareness, you cannot be fully intentional in your actions. Developing this level of self awareness requires deep self study, Svadhyaya, a practice that few who are busily climbing the corporate ladder and being a ‘successful person’, have the time to do. And if you did take the time, the climb would inevitably pause.
For the past year I paused. I stopped doing in order to observe and to heal.
I have reflected and I have surrendered.
I have looked at where I am from. The path, the people, the lessons.
I have thought deeply about what I know and how I know these things.
Emerging from my study of organisational change and personal transformation is a theory of adult psychological development, insight into the way human consciousness matures, expands and deepens, with consistent and focused study and practice, and with immersion within communities of practice. And as strange as it sounds, now I have had time to look around, I see that from within these communities children are being born, children who’s minds are free, who are taught to see the world from a systems perspective, who are taught from a young age, to embrace complexity and navigate uncertainty. Young people who don’t see themselves as experts in change, who would never label themselves as a ‘transformation professional’, but who are, nevertheless, creating true, disruptive, radical change. Simply by being.
To be a change expert, in my mind, you need to demonstrate your ongoing, intimate relationship with change. You must be able to show a willingness to question your ideology and your assumptions. You must demonstrate a capacity for disruptive behaviour and questioning norms. And, above all else, an ability to direct energy into understanding yourself so well that you can take full responsibility for the influence you have on others; to mature beyond leadership, to a sense of complex, transcendent stewardship.
I hope with time there will be more among those who call themselves change or transformation experts, who lay claim to that status with integrity.
May you be happy,
May you be healthy,
May you be free from suffering.
With metta (loving kindness),
Collins, H., & Evans, R. (2008). Rethinking expertise. In Rethinking Expertise. University of Chicago Press.
Hodgkinson, S. P., & Innes, J. M. (2000). The prediction of ecological and environmental belief systems: The differential contributions of social conservatism and beliefs about money. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20(3), 285-294.
Milgram, S., & Gudehus, C. (1978). Obedience to authority.
Comments on Dr Shari Read’s article
An amazing read. Thank you.
Link to original article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/reflecting-change-expertise-what-makes-expert-dr-shari-read/
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