There is an old joke about a tourist trying to get to New York, Dublin or the city of choice for whatever national stereotype. He stops in a village out in the sticks to ask a local for directions. After long consideration, the local replies “If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

This neatly sums up what the paradoxical theory of change is all about. In business or in life, you’re going to have an almighty task on your hands reaching your destination if you don’t completely understand your starting point.

Why paradoxical?

This branch of Gestalt theory is so named because it states that in order to change we must first fully accept and understand the status quo. In the joke, the tourist wants to be in New York City. But to get there he needs to get to grips with his surroundings in the Upstate countryside.

The paradoxical theory of change states that change occurs when we become what we are, not when we try to become what we are not. This is an essential tenet for any change manager to keep in mind. It suggests that you are not going to truly change anyone through coercion, but only by taking the time and effort to allow them to be, understand and accept who or what they truly are.

The theory

The theory is usually attributed to American psychiatrist Arnold Beisser, a student of Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt theory. It is one of the most attractive concepts within Gestalt, and not just because it suggests a fuzzy feeling of “it’s OK to be who you are.” The real beauty of the concept lies within the paradox.

It suggests that the change manager’s first task isn’t about change at all. It is all but impossible for anyone to move if they do not start from a position in which they have a clear understanding and a sure footing. When change is necessary, its processes are often explained in terms of where an individual or company should be rather than where they are at present. We can see this approach as a case of putting the cart before the horse, dedicating all our energy to the end point and ignoring the start.

Practical applications

Consult any text book or website about the paradoxical theory of change, and you will see plenty of applications for psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and the like. However, the approach is just as relevant in the 21st century business environment.

Change is an ever present factor in the modern world. Technology, working practices, communication methods and team dynamics are evolving faster than ever before. Finding stability through a flexible and adaptable approach is central to helping people evolve with the changing times and the paradoxical theory of change can be applied as easily to businesses and societies as it can be applied to the individual employees or citizens that comprise it.

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