If you are involved in any kind of change management within your organisation, gestalt change management may be an approach you have stumbled across at one time or another. Gestalt theory suggests that as humans, we are constantly trying to create order and restore balance when something seems off-kilter. At its root, this stems from the concept of “cognitive dissonance,” which is the idea that our minds cannot simultaneously hold two conflicting beliefs.
Gestalt is a German word. The closest translation is ‘whole’, ‘pattern’ or ‘form’. It has the sense that meaning cannot be found from breaking things down into parts but rather from appreciation of the whole. In other words, Gestalt is a holistic process. It regards the individual as a totality of mind, body, emotions and spirit who experiences reality in a way unique to themselves.
In practice, this means that if we focus on self-awareness: on what is happening from one moment to the next or, as we often say, in the ‘Here and Now’ we can increase awareness and understanding. This awareness extends not only across present, immediate thoughts, feelings and behaviour, but also across patterns of relating and behaving and can bring about powerful change and new perspectives.
Why is gestalt important?
When we perceive conflict, or feel something is out of its rightful order, we instinctively try to put it back the way it is supposed to be. Examples are all around us every day. You might find yourself straightening the placemats on a table or adjusting a crooked picture on a wall without even thinking about it just because your brain tells you that it’s “not right”.
In the corporate environment, this kind of mental inertia regarding the way things are supposed to be can cause some real headaches in periods of change.
Gestalt change management
We intuitively know that people can be resistant to change. Often, we put it down to vague concepts such as suspicion or individuals “being set in their ways”. Yet gestalt gives us a psychological basis for this resistance. In essence, the new way of doing things is felt to be “wrong” at the psychological level, the brain has an instinctive yearning to restore the natural order of things, in just the same way that it wants to adjust that crooked picture.
This will be old news for anyone leading a company through a period of change and trying to haul the resistant workforce along with it. If the change is brought about by a merger or acquisition, the resistance will be even stronger, as employees will feel there is a tangible reason to worry about their futures. Add fear and uncertainty to this psychological aversion to change, and not only will heels be dug in, but productivity will probably grind to a halt.
An interesting point to observe here is that resistance to change is just as much of a factor in group behaviour and psychology as it is in individuals. I have talked in the past about organisational culture — what it is and how it is made up — and we discussed that it is essentially the sum total of the norms, beliefs, attitudes and expectations of the individuals within the organisation. Throw those ingredients out of kilter, have everyone desperately trying to straighten the picture, and the entire culture will go into a downward spiral.
What can we do about it?
Clearly, gestalt change management theory suggests there is work to be done to persuade employees not only that change is OK, that it is positive and that there is nothing to fear. More than that, they need to be convinced on the psychological level that it is inherently right. We will take a look at some tools for going about that next time.
You might also find this post by Herb Stevenson at the Cleveland Consulting Group interesting.