The Paradox of Organizational Change

In her 2003 book “The Paradox of Organizational Change,” Dr. Maria Malott challenges our conventional assumptions about the nature of organizational change. Change, Malott suggests, is not something unusual, but is a constant part of what we do as members of organizations. Our organizations are always adapting, constantly in the process of blending what is new into what is established, that is, the underlying values and processes of the organization. In this way, our organizations feel stable and consistent while they are, in reality, constantly dealing with changing customers, staff, regulations, technologies, and other elements.

Dr. Maria Malott How is it possible, given that change is the “constant,” that at times change in our organizations is disruptive, appearing to be at odds with organizational culture? Malott adopts the concept of “victim blaming” to explaining this aspect of organizational behaviors. In this case, if an organizational suffers from less than optimal performance or results, there is a tendency to blame those individuals who suffer the most from a poor performing organization, as if they are the culprits. Malott argues that almost everyone in an organization is trying to do a good job, so it is the underlying system that creates successes and failures. And organizations frequently reward individuals who possess perfect track records, rather than recognizing those who try new things with the intent to move the organization forward and perhaps fail.


Two other ideas point toward both the difficulty with and the hope for change in organizations. First, people often revert to what they are used to when they encounter difficulty and potential failure. Second, people will adopt change if there are measurable gains associated with it. Take an example drawn from academic organizations. An instructor who tries a new pedagogy, such as a flipped classroom, may abandon the change if they encounter an initial difficulty, such as poorly functioning technology. But if the pedagogical change can show measurable results, such as improved student performance on challenging material, that same instructor may persist and influence others to adopt the change.

You may be thinking, “People in my organization are not this fickle. They can see the big picture, the philosophical advantage of the change that I believe in.” As a specialist in organizational behavior, Malott is influenced by psychology, like how we respond to rewards and punishments and how this drives our behaviors. Consider the kind of reception—is it resistance or acceptance?—that you are running into as you push for change. Malott’s principles (listed below for easy reference) may provide you with additional tools for understanding your own organizational environment.

The Take Away—

Dr. Maria Malott, The Paradox of Organizational Change:

* Organizational victim blaming—unjustly assuming that those who suffer the consequences of a poorly functioning system are responsible for the system’s flaws.

* Environmental selection—the conditions that precede and follow the behavior of individuals affect how they behave in the future (what Malott sees as the underlying principle of change).

* Cultural selection—practices that produce material gain for a culture tend to persist in that culture.

Maria E. Malott, PhD, is executive director and fellow of the Association for Behavioral Analysis. She is the author of Paradox of Organizational Change: Engineering Organizations with Behavioral Systems Analysis (Context Press, 2003)

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