Why Systemic Change is Hard

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I recently completed a certification program with a group of agile consultants. In our final session, one of them asked, “Why is systemic change so difficult when it comes to social and emotional thinking and behaving? It’s these needed areas of change that drive so much resistance in our agile change process.” He added, “The social and emotional changes we just learned in your culture model should come before agile transformation.”

“The system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course—it no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth. What will come after, what kind of structure will be the foundation for alternate forms of social organization we cannot yet know. We are living in an age of unprecedented transformation. We are in the process of becoming.”

Gerda Lerner, American historian, and author

My take is that all systems change contains social and emotional components key to the success of every transformation process. The main reason for resistance to the social and emotional is that whether we know it or not, we are all being called to move to win/win thinking and behaving rather than win/lose. For many, there is resistance to let go of win/lose (often by a death grip) because win/lose seems to benefit some. They fear win/win will cost them. There’s nothing further from the truth. Win/lose is familiar but fears of shifting to win/win are unfounded and destructive to all.

Most people don’t realize their attraction and addiction to subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways they abuse power. Their very identity is attached to overt and covert intimidation and threat, dangling carrots, praising, and criticizing, neglect, and enabling. These abuses of power all keep others in an inferior position that negatively effects their social, emotional, and physical experiences. Win/lose requires a numbing of empathy and social interest, the consideration of others. Win/lose promotes individualism at the cost of love and caring; it cost even those who think they are winning.

In Samuel Arbesman’s quote on change blindness, he states there is a problem with change for two primary reasons. One is that we have to go out of our way to change. We have to consider why we want to change, what we should transform from, into, and then put in the effort to make the specific mindset and behavior changes. I recently did this when I committed to do 75 hard, a regimen for 75 days, in which I daily worked out 90 minutes, drank a gallon of water, followed a chosen diet religiously, took a picture of my body, and read 10 pages of a non-fiction book. If I missed a step, I would have to start over. I did not miss a step. The changes were hugely beneficial on many levels, but it was not easy (especially in the beginning) and it was not always comfortable or convenient. So going out of our way is a big deal.

The second reason Arbesman states for why we don’t like to change is that we don’t like to consider our current ways of thinking and behaving as outdated. Change in the social and emotional often challenges our very identity and sense of security. If we begin to see that the win/lose thinking and behaving we’ve been indulging in is not a winning strategy, or worse, is cause for all struggles within and between people, we not only feel the ground beneath us is giving way, we may also feel guilty. In our society, because we are so bought into punishment and conditional love, we think that if we are or have been guilty or wrong, that we deserve punishment. Geesh – what a vicious cycle! So, what’s the solution?

In order to consider new systems (and I’m adding win/win systems), we need to scrutinize the status quo win/lose beliefs and behaviors widely promoted and endorsed so we can recognize they are in fact, primary root causes of all problems. We must also consider how to upgrade from win/lose systems to win/win systems and what specifically is required to do so. We must know and willingly engage in change, despite being uncomfortable. We will not feel tortured if we choose intentional purpose and high vision, combined with compassion, curiosity, and unconditional love for ourselves and one another.

When we see and acknowledge what win/lose systems are costing us, and experience what’s possible with win/win systems, we eagerly remove barriers to real social and emotional systemic change. Then we make way for and succeed at, every other needed change process effortlessly, whether these are best practices for globalization, technology, diversity, democracy, and any other trend and innovation.  LifeWork Systems changed our name to include the word systems because systems are foundational to every outcome.

Be intentional in your systemic change so you can join us in our mission to create a world (a new win/win system) in which all people love their lives. Let us know if you need such help in creating win/win systems in your organization as a worthy and crucial starting place. It can be hard to do, but you’ve got this. You can do hard things.

This article is published in the column The Extraordinary Workplace in St. Louis Small Business Monthly, July 2022.

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