In celebration of Bastille Day in France this blog aims to salute our blue and white hooped jumper, bicycle riding colleagues across the channel.  Happy Bastille day to our French employers, what can your monarchy-beheading national holiday tell us about change management?
The French Revolution was a revolution orientated around groups; pre revolutionary France was divided into the three estates of the Nobility, the Clergy and the Peasantry.  In this blog I am going to highlight some of the negative effects that inter-group dynamics can have on change management, but to do so I must first introduce Social Identity Theory (SIT).  SIT is a psychological theory that focuses on how we conceptualize our relationship toward others in a social group setting.  A social group is simply a collection of individuals that share a common definition of themselves and have a consensus as to what it means to be part of that group.  A psychological definition of SIT can be seen below,
“We can define ourselves either in terms of what makes us unique compared to other individuals (personal identity) or in terms of our membership in social groups (social identity).  …just as personal identity defines our uniqueness relative to other individuals, so our distinctive social identity is defined by what marks us out as different from other groups”  (Reicher 2004).
So how does SIT help us to understand change and the French Revolution?  

  • When faced with an uncertain social context, people will often rely on their Social Identity to understand that context and place themselves within it.  Change often generates uncertainty, so there may be some truth in ‘people reverting to type’.  Groups will maintain a collective consciousness through which they will interpret events.
  • A social group provides its members with two characteristics, prestige and distinctiveness.   In a change programme, the groups affected will engage in competition to increase their group prestige (access to economic resources, influence, status and even the best desk space), likewise they will resist the change if their prestige will fall.
  • Resistance to change can result if that change erodes the distinctiveness of a group, such as in a merger. Group distinctiveness is also maintained by accentuating the positive element of the in-group and negative element of the out-groups.
  • In order to motivate and energize a group to change, a change leader will have to share the identity of, and be accepted by the group.  The change leader will most likely help that group differentiate themselves in a social context.  Followers will have a favourable view of leaders that they perceive as ‘in-group’ and will be more likely to accept bad news from an in-group leader, because of that favourable attitude.  Leadership from an in-group leader is accepted unconditionally, and this degenerates the relationship with an out-group leader to one of transactional exchange. 

So let us turn to pre-revolutionary France to illustrate these points.  France, neatly organized into its three aforementioned estates finds itself in a changing environment where concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity are becoming fashionable.  Equality!??!? “Sacred Bleu!” say the cake eating aristocracy, who baffled by this changing sentiment entrench their own  distinctive privileged division.  Meanwhile the Church, the biggest land owner, lowest tax payer and rapacious tithe collector starts to be concerned at its potential loss of revenue and prestige.
Now let’s turn to the fairly apathetic French peasant, let’s call him ‘Pierre’.  Pierre finds himself disorientated by this bizarre social context.  According to SIT, people will behave in a manner that congruent with their social identity; members of social groups are more likely to be influenced by their own in-group members than out group.  So he behaves as his peers expect him to and attacks the aristocracy.  He doesn’t attack the aristocracy to replace them, nor to merge with them.  For Pierre is proud of his distinctive identity as a hard working man of the soil and is disdainful of their wealth and their indulgence.  Pierre, adopting the peasant group memory and perspective of peasantry them remembers  how his cousin ‘Julien the Wine-Maker’ has suffered ills at the hands of the land owing  Catholic church, and chooses to turn on his spiritual master to redistribute economic resource and increase his groups prestige.
So now let’s look at Napoleon.  Evidence of his SIT based leadership is most profoundly illustrated by his escape from Elba.  Intercepted by a regiment of soldiers sent to arrest him by Louis XVIII, Napoleon approached the regiment alone, dismounted his horse and, when he was within gunshot range, shouted, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish.”  The soldiers responded with, “Vive L’Empereur!” and marched with Napoleon to Paris.  Why did the regiment not look to their leader, Louis XVIII, their pay master and legal ruler?  Because Louis was not one of them and Napoleon was.  Napoleon did not come to prominence because of any intrinsic leadership ability or behaviour, but because he was accepted unconditionally by the people he was leading, because he was one of them.
So to conclude, what has group dynamics got to do with change:
1.            Change will alter the social context, different groups and cultures within the former context will compete to enhance their prestige and to maintain their distinctiveness and this will destabilize a change project.
2.            Change leaders have to be in-group leaders and accepted by the in-group for the change to be successful.
I will leave the blog reader with two questions.  If effective change leadership is based on situational factors and interpersonal relationships, where does this leave a leaders own behavoural style?  And what role for a leader generated transformational vision for the success of a change programme?
Vive la France, Happy Bastille Day.