As we barrel towards a potential Brexit (British Exit) from the EU and watch on with a mix of intrigue and disbelief as the USA seems to genuinely consider Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate, I am struck by how much of the debate is being driven by the fear of difference.
Immigration, border control, religious differences and, even in 2016, whether men will vote for a woman, are all front and centre. I can’t help but wonder, why are we so afraid of difference?
It’s not a new phenomenon. Many years ago I visited the Immigration Museum in New York. They had a video playing which talked visitors through the many waves of immigration into the city and the fear and resistance it generated amongst the existing population. Each wave may have faced a different facet of bigotry, but the pattern was consistent. After the hatred and resistance, there was assimilation and, to a greater or lesser degree, acceptance.
As Donald Trump calls for borders to be closed to Muslims, he should remember that in the 1840s, there were similar calls to bar Catholics. Indeed, those very tensions lead to rioting and the burning of Catholic churches. Who in the USA would now argue for the expulsion and barring of Catholics?
Can the same fears play out in organisations?
The short answer is yes. Mergers and acquisitions can smash two or more cultural tribes together. Rapid growth can see an existing workforce diluted by an influx of new recruits. When cultural shocks happen, whether at a country or a company level, the human response is often the same. A significant emotional reaction occurs that, in organisations, can create high levels of disengagement and an unhealthy culture.
We often run a workshop exercise with clients that simulates change on a very small scale. We ask attendees to alter a few aspects of their appearance; to make a change. The results are fascinating and nearly always the same, highlighting why acceptance of change is often so challenging. With almost 100% certainty I can be sure that the first step of every attendee will be to remove an item of his or her clothing. As the exercise pushes for more and more change, more and more items of clothing are removed. This can continue until the attendees start worrying about whether they may end up nude in front of their colleagues! They become increasingly defensive about being asked to make more changes. That is, until one attendee clocks that they can add an item to their outfit and still be meeting the requirement of changing their appearance.
The first reaction to ‘newness’ and ‘difference’ is nearly always to assume we are losing something. With loss comes the feeling that we lack the resources we need to cope with the situation at hand, and we become increasingly defensive as a result.
When we become defensive, we immediately start to consider how we can protect ourselves and our way of life. Our motivation is to return to the status quo or return things to order. This rebalancing tendency leads people to actively campaign against the object that is causing uncertainty. In mergers, this may result in a failure to achieve synergy between the two organisations. In rapid growth, you may see a surge in resignations amongst your established team as they actively choose not to engage with the ‘newness’.
Having said this, we are inherently capable of change. After all, JFK became President and was a Catholic. Embracing ‘difference’ and ‘newness’ requires courage, the ability to look at the positive, and a belief that we gain more than we lose in any new situation. It requires us to suspend our judgment and hold possibility and openness in its space. Which is, in our view, a core quality of most highly successful cultures.