It’s no exaggeration to claim that behaviourist-informed approaches to culture change still dominate the field. The problem is that they don’t work: phrases such as “managing people”, “shaping behaviours” and “driving change” share assumptions that people are passive entities to be moulded by rewards and deterrents and ‘driven’ to embody a new culture imposed by an external change agent.
These are wishful fantasies. I believe that change occurs at both an individual and organisational level when people stop trying to become what they aren’t (such as an idea someone else has dreamt up) and start becoming what they already are. That’s the basis of the Paradoxical Theory of Change developed by one of the doyens of Gestalt psychology, Arnold Beisser.
By raising awareness of the infinitely intricate interplays of self and other, figure and ground, by opening up freer perceptual ranges, Gestalt consultants seek to encourage those who already make organisational culture to play with ideas and reform it. They do this by realising their own previously untapped potentials – becoming who they already are but hadn’t yet appreciated.
This approach fosters change through enabling people, encouraging experimentation and developing self-efficacy. It’s amazing what a change of vocabulary can do to generate new awareness and a new repertoire of possibilities.
By encouraging people to focus on who they are rather than who they think they ought to be, Gestalt approaches to culture change encourage a new sense of collective mindfulness, a new sense of acceptance and comfort in the flux of life. Imposing visions on people produces resistance; mindfulness, in the sense of expanded awareness of possibilities, produces a kind of playful experimentation and a willingness to embrace and forge new change.
If critics argue that the resulting change may not be what the organisation needs, I’d point to the power of collectively created change in realising the commercial, political and stakeholder aims of the organisation.