Monday, October 19, 2020

Making It Easier for Firms to Adapt to Social Norms: The Art of Facilitation

Organizations are often asked to change so that they become more in sync with societal norms. Social movements, activist employees, and even the state can ask for change, but as we have discussed already, change often meets with resistance. What to do in the face of resistance? The usual response has been to push harder when an organization resists, just as battering rams were used to get through fortress gates.

In an article published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Lisa Buchter documents another approach that has been overlooked: facilitating the change. This approach is built on the principle of creating mechanisms that make it easier for the organization to change, by creating models for how change can be implemented and setting examples showing its success. The reason this works is that resistance to change is partly motivated by the effort of changing structures and processes and partly by the uncertainty of its success. The reason this works smoothly is that it is a way of reducing rather than overcoming resistance.

How did Buchter discover this approach? She studied French organizations adopting policies that accept LGBT rights. This was a complex initiative because French law had been written to ensure the rights of diverse groups, mentioning disability, sex, age, and ethno-racial categories but omitting sexual orientation. The task facing LGBT employees was to become recognized as a group that also deserved equal treatment and to have policies implemented.

To accomplish this, employee activists made use of implementation resources – including documentation of the need for fair LGBT treatment but focusing on creating preconfigured policies and procedures that the organization could adopt directly or with simple modifications. They did push for change, but there was a clear emphasis on making the change easier to implement. They could do this because LGBT activists shared information among themselves on what had been done successfully in pioneer organizations, and activists in each organization could point to successes when advocating change in their employer.

While one benefit of this approach was to accelerate change by making it easier to do, another was to ensure that the policy adoptions actually worked as intended. Organizations often react to changes in societal norms by doing as little as possible because they favor stability – not necessarily because they dislike the new norms. But presenting preconfigured policies meant that the new policies would not be minimal and symbolic changes but changes that actually led to fair treatment of the LGBT community.

Notice that the keys to success were that the initiatives were systematically spread among organizations and that in each organization insiders – employees – had prime responsibility for helping implementation. Employees need to learn what are the most effective implementation approaches, and they already know which leaders in their organization are best to approach. History offers few examples of the successful use of a battering ram but many more of successful castle sieges in which the gate was opened from the inside.

Buchter, L. 2020 "Escaping the Ellipsis of Diversity: Insider Activists’ Use of Implementation Resources to Influence Organization Policy." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.