The Dark Side of Change - Part 3

By Mark Buchan | 1 December 2015

In the 2nd part of this trilogy of articles on the dark side of change I made reference to something I refer to as a dark drama. In short a dark drama is “a continued and extended set of interactions, that are considered to be less than kind and compassionate towards others.”

Dark dramas are evoked when people are confronted with change and the behaviours exhibited during this time are often destructive and counter productive to the change.   I call them dark because the behaviours exhibited are often part of a persons “shadow” side.  Some people might refer to those behaviours as “evil”, but most often they are malicious and damaging to the others involved.  A few examples might be:

  • Backstabbing: character assassination behind another persons back
  • Gossiping: less malicious but still harmful, speaking about others in a less that pleasant way
  • Attacking: physical, mental or emotional attacks on others in public or in private.  Often in the form of verbal abuse as a result of losing control
  • Politicking: scheming for the downfall of another that can include any of the above
  • Putting people down and so on …

We all agree that these are less than attractive qualities in an individual and we find them even less attractive in ourselves.  I’m no saint and I have found myself acting in some of these ways in the past.  With much reflection and personal development  in the form of therapy I have begun to understand the root cause of why I have acted in these ways in the past.  Ultimately it boils down to one word: FEAR.

Many years ago I read a definition of fear.  It was an acronym that read: False Evidence Appearing Real.  Ultimately it comes down to our thinking.  Now I know there are some examples  where its not “false evidence”.  It’s a natural response to feel fear if you are on the edge of a cliff with nothing to stop your fall – its nature’s way of saying “step back”.  However much of what we fear is in our imagination; is it really true that he looked at me in a threatening way? Was there  really a tone in her voice?  Sometimes we imagine it, sometimes we don’t and very often our response to fear what comes next.

So what?
So people act in dark ways sometimes and very often they do this out of fear; how does that help you or your organisation? Well having an insight into the world of the other can often be a useful tool to help reframe your experience so that you can  step outside of the drama.  As I said in the previous part of this article it takes two or more people to start and continue a drama, but it takes only one to stop it.  You can make a conscious commitment to not add to the drama by stepping outside of it and doing different. It is most likely that your change in behaviour will  bring about a change in the other persons behaviour just like the following case study demonstrates.

Angry Peter
In my early days as a consultant it was part of my role to address the change communities with whom we would be working.  Now in this particular assignment, these guys were engineering guys, blue-collar workers who were heavily unionized and totally against change – whatever it was (a gross generalization I know, but this was the view of management who in some ways perpetuated the problem with their limiting beliefs about the intentions of others).  

My organizational sponsor gave me a warning ahead of the session that I was likely to be hijacked by Peter, one of the more vocal members of the group.  As predicted it didn’t take Peter long to perceive me as an easy target for what could only be considered a tirade of abuse.  Once Peter had stopped to gather his breath for round 2, I thanked him (sincerely), acknowledged his anger (using some NLP at the same time) and then politely, but firmly, requested him to park his concerns temporarily and I would catch up with him after the session to hear more, which he was gracious enough to do.  It was at that moment that Peter had invited me to play along in his script of “how things have always been this way” and “things will never change around here”.  

Stopping for a moment
My response to his invitation at that moment was so important because I could have been pulled into his drama and become a coconspirator in keeping him and the organisation stuck. For instance I might have chosen to play the offended one: “How could you? I am only here trying to help you …” But this passive victim response will only encourage more of the same behaviour as I would be handing power and control over to Peter. Alternatively I could do “Angrily Offended” and could self-righteously victimize Peter, but that too invites more of the same behaviour.  

Choose different
What we decide to do and how to respond is invariably determined by our thinking and feeling towards the other person.  In this drama I could have chosen to see Peter’s anger as something directed at me personally; however the view I was taking was that I was a mere projection upon which Peter could “release tension” from the anxiety that had been building up around all these changes that he and the organisation were going through.  I chose not to see his anger as destructive or disrespectful, in fact quite the opposite.  I believe anger is a healthy and justifiable emotion but many people don’t regard it this way.  Peter needed an outlet for his pent up feelings of frustration and I was that channel for him.  I just needed to not take it personal otherwise I would have contributed more unresourceful energy to the drama and further embedded the problem.

After the session Peter, I and a few others had a very resourceful chat as they shared with me their reality.  Because I had taken the time to listen and understand their world, rather than dismiss or diminish them, I became someone who they could talk to without fear of judgment or backlash.  This was the start of a healing journey for Peter and his team as they embraced the change to their organisation because they started to take ownership.

A final thought
So look, I don’t want to “Do Disney” on this subject and make you believe that every dark drama has a perfect outcome with a happy ever after; because quite often they don’t. I’ll happily share with anyone some of my failures in a private conversation, mainly because I don’t want to become a target for other peoples attacks.  But in the meantime here is an expression that I often share with my coaches and I think it is so valuable that I encourage senior managers to put it on a plaque on their desk:

“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”

In closing
So there is so much more I could say on this subject but I would love to hear from you and your experience in your dealing with the dark side of change.  Maybe there are a few more articles here yet, but this is maybe a good start. 

About me
Agile Behaviour and Culture Mark BuchanI am Mark Buchan, a business psychologist who specialises in Agile leadership, culture and people change where I facilitate the development of senior leaders and executives to become more Agile. I have worked in all types and sizes of organisations, with people at all levels including the CxO level. I am a masters graduate from the renowned Ashridge Business School where I studied organisational change and executive development. I am also a Partner at the consulting firm nlighten.

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