I read an article recently about the challenges facing business leaders in Ireland in preparing their organisations for Brexit. It led me to reflect on an insightful paper by Donald Schön back in 1971 (Beyond the Stable State, 1971). It occurred to me that great organisational intellects like Schön can capture the essence of what is important for business leaders to focus on. These core truths, which persist over the long term, are a source of valuable insight for business leaders who need to respond to challenges in the short term.
After graduating from Harvard with a PhD, Schön continued his research in organisational behaviour and systems thinking. Together with Chris Argyris he made in-depth studies of the concept of ‘learning systems’, which are fundamental concepts taught in the best business schools in the world today.
Belief in the ‘stable state’ is belief in the unchangeability, the constancy, of certain central aspects of our lives. It is a desire to attain a kind of consistency that is held deeply in our consciousness. This belief is institutionalised in the financial markets, creating real challenges for business leaders. Market participants demand that business leaders deliver predictable, consistent returns on their invested capital. Market participants do this despite their apparent acceptance of change and approval of dynamism.
Belief in the stable state is central because it is a bulwark against the threat of uncertainty. Shareholders and the financial markets don’t like uncertainty! Given the inevitability of change and the often unstable nature of competitive business markets, organisational stakeholders can only maintain belief in the stable state through tactics of which they are largely unaware.
In his research, Schön found various responses to loss of the stable state, embedded in an unconscious and often unrecognised resistance to change, and an emotional desire to maintain the illusory and unattainable stable state. He revealed three primary responses, or anti-responses, which are destructive in character.
The first response takes the form of return: Let us return to the last stable state, to the way it used to be. This response is familiar to anyone who observes Donald Trump’s America or Boris Johnson’s Britain. Another response is revolt: revolution that takes its structure from what it reacts to, with nothing to replace it with. The third response is mindlessness.
Leadership coaching is concerned with enabling business leaders and their organisations to manage change constructively. It provides the essential space to reflect, and to understand more deeply that resistance to change is part of being human. Attachment to the stable state runs deep in human consciousness and that of organisational stakeholders. Business leaders will sometimes find themselves in the lonely position of having to manage the implementation of constructive change, and to confront an unconscious, destructive response from organisational stakeholders in the direction of return, revolt or mindlessness.
Leadership coaching helps successful business leaders to engage with the unconscious resistance they often face from organisational stakeholders, as well as their own conscious intentions and determination.