It is not possible to step twice into the same river . . . or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state.
—Heraclitus, Fragment B91
When life doesn’t meet our expectations of remaining the same, it is tempting to quote Heraclitus on change as a reminder of our precarity. But to what extent his observation is true or rings true is not so obvious. We often spend our time trying to hide from change or ignoring it so we can carry on with familiar and safe relations.
Cognitively and emotionally, we look for stability in our identity. We see ourselves perduring with a set of core features or traits that others and ourselves can recognize over time. As things change, this puts pressure on who we are.
When this tension between change and identity generates more heat than light, what emerges is a difficult transition in which one tries to cope with the pressures and fears.
This blog offers a few insights on how a certain kind of existential philosophy—which prioritizes our relation to others as the key to meaningfulness—provides some concrete steps to help businesses and organizations grapple with change.
William and Susan Bridges are well-known for their work on transition management (TM). Change, as they define it, involves situational events where what we took to be stable alters—whether it pertains to locations, people, processes, values, etc. Transitions are the human side to change; how we are physically, psychologically, and emotionally affected; how we adapt or don't adapt.
So the key to responding well to change comes down to how we can manage the transition it precipitates. An obvious example: how did your business manage the transition during the change that was the pandemic?
I was recently referred to Bridges' Managing Transitions book by a philosophy colleague who worked in palliative care and now researches in thanatology, a science which seeks to understand the needs of those who face death. (After all, death is itself something towards which we transition in our existence.)
One of the key insights of TM is that during periods of change organizations can easily lose sight of the role and importance of how its employees feel about their work and their relation to the business. This is in part because there is often an assumption that “everyone is there to do a job, so each one of us best get on with it”. In addition, organizations aren’t often equipped with specialists who are trained to relate and communicate in ways that focus on understanding feelings and emotions.
So what can complicate our ability to deal with the challenges of change can be an emotional impasse that needs recognition, diagnosis, and understanding in order to turn a weakness into a strength.
There are two things to bear in mind that can help make an organization healthier with respect to creating a positive emotional space at work which can cope better with change and transitioning.
1. Purpose is not about Achieving but Believing
Each business has its respective objectives; yet as TM makes clear, the purpose and objectives of a business are not the same. Objectives are distinct ends to be met that presumably help a business fulfill its purpose.
So, for example, increasing sales might be an objective; but that cannot be the purpose of the business. (If it is, then the business seriously needs to re-think its raison d'être.) In contrast, its purpose might be to be the region’s most reliable and trusted car dealership. A cutting-edge novelty for the market!
Purpose, in other words, is what employees can get behind and feel genuine about when devoting their time and toil to meeting their short- and long-term objectives.
Purpose is the common denominator that binds the business together. Conceived well enough, it can be the source of motivation and identity for its employees. I used to work for a high-end insurance company, and the idea of being the “Rolls Royce” of insurers was definitely something linked to its purpose and the way its staff conducted themselves, whether as an underwriter, adjuster, or manager.
2. Caring for Success Means Caring for Others
The way to keep the sense of purpose alive is through caring for one’s employees. For what good is a company’s purpose if it leaves behind its employees or treats them as a mere means or resource. (Yes, a tongue-in-cheek stab at the “human resources” tag.)
While an organization's purpose is something that must be worked out respectively, developing a caring structure involves features that almost any organization can adopt and cultivate. Here's a glimpse as to how . . .
Enter the French existentialist Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973).
Marcel believed that existence itself was ultimately unfathomable or mysterious. We can learn about certain aspects of it, but human knowledge can never capture a complete picture of existence. Even if we were able to describe everything that was, is, and will be, it could only be a static representation and would fail to account for the dynamic relations between the parts of the whole.
In the language of TM, even the most complete picture could not really account for how change affects the parts and thus re-shapes the whole.
For Marcel existence was elusive as much as mysterious. Thinking that we can master it only leads to disappointment and even tragedy. (Marcel’s philosophy was in part a reaction to the two World Wars.)
Paying attention to objectives at the cost of alienating employees is, in a manner of speaking, the same kind of delusion about mastery. Such an approach pretends that the business is only about specific ends or processes and not about humans. (Yes, businesses are about and humans!) Focusing solely on objectives is a way of "mastering" the employee by making them subservient to ends and processes.
Against this kind of reduction, Marcel saw human beings as the personification of the mystery of existence itself. In other words, we embody much of what is unfathomable about existence. What clinched this for Marcel was essentially the mystery of who each one is—one’s identity.
Just consider, in view of my opening remarks, how one’s identity is that for which one is persistently in search. Moreover, from the perspective of another person, one’s identity remains that which calls for recognition and understanding over time.
Ignoring this quality of human existence leads to what Marcel believes is a closure of human relation that inevitably treats humans like things, numbers, or means. And such treatment tends to breed more of the same.
Caring as Making Oneself Available
Marcel’s solution? He spoke of making ourselves available to one another (disponibilité). It is not as easy as it seems since it involves bracketing or suspending assumptions, biases, even our own mood in order to receive the other person.
An example of this with which most might be familiar is meeting a stranger within a shared context. You are at university for the first time or a prestigious conference for your profession. As John Stuart Mill observed, one of the key principles of human moral behavior is wanting to fit in well with others. Trying to do so is often the cause of anxiety, which can in turn alter our social behavior. Yet, when one encounters that one open person who is warm and welcoming and appears genuinely interested in who you are, that anxiety dissolves. Genuine conversation begins.
Here are some key components of a healthy organization from a Marcellian existential management approach. Create and nurture the following:
The spaces of interrelation and dialogue should be hospitable.
Transparency of words, actions, and emotions means the potential for understanding one another increases.
A nascent trust is nurtured when the space feels safe and the discussion is genuine.
When things click and gibe, conversation becomes spontaneous and can reveal new solutions and perspectives.
Of course, there is much more to Marcel’s philosophy and applying it to management. But I hope we can at least see how something like availability might benefit a business or organization seeking to take significant steps towards managing change and transitioning by caring for its people.
Those who know me well will have expected this next line:
Is there a way your organization can make availability a virtue?
What structures, processes, and roles might your organization change or introduce to create the conditions for hospitality, communication, trust, and creativity?
If you would like to learn more about how availability or other philosophical ideas and theories might benefit your business, please reach out to the author for a free 30-minute consultation.
If you are an individual facing their own significant career change and transition, you might want to contact a change strategist, such as Hillary Hutchinson.
Dr Todd Mei is a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. He was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, he is also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, he can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.