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change in organizations: can only a speech?

To do this, I’m going to build on the work of López-Aranguren and Gomez The rhetoric of change in organizations (2004), and in the article by Gómez The rhetoric of change in organizations: are there any problems looking for solutions or solutions looking for problems?

The position of these authors, respaldad by solid research, is that language is not merely a tool that managers use to reinforce the process of change. On the contrary: language is the instrument that causes the change itself. This perspective clashes head-on with the image of the management of change as a rational process, in which face certain facts, the managers considered a number of possible solutions, preferring the best of them. As we will see, the process of change is far from being rational: the managers tend to have understandings of poor and highly biased of the reasons for the change, and these reasons tend to be influenced by a particular rhetoric of management.

The business associations have a prominent role in the process. And is that, thanks to them, managers can enter in contact with other managers, and with gurus to defend some very specific visions about what should be the change in the organizations. The associations therefore fulfill two functions.

In the first place, thanks to the socialization, artifacts, language related to the discourse of change can be spread between the companies involved (we speak of concepts like “empowerment”, “total quality management”,….). In the second place, managers can share stories and emotions relating to their own companies. This second function is especially relevant, since thanks to the knowledge of cases of successful companies, we can create the common perception that there are common solutions to different problems business.

This common perception promotes the phenomenon of “solutions looking for problems”, that is: the attempt of application of solutions that have been successful in the resolution of a certain problem in a certain company, but that need not be in other companies. And this is because these companies have their own issues and conflicts on their own. Managers, thus, will dazzle you with promises of success in the future, to change initiate change, even when the performance of the organization is optimal in the present.

How does this glare?: by using the rhetoric put into practice by the gurus of change. When we speak of “gurus”, we mean those people who espouse a particular methodology of change, using recipes from implementation, and using persuasion rather than reasoning, to disseminate their principles. Although the books, or articles, to contribute to this persuasive effect, it is through the face to face contact with the executives and the message of the gurus exerted all their influence (which, as we have seen, is facilitated by the business associations, but also can acquire other forms, such as seminars).

In this persuasive speech, it is common to search for a strong emotional impact, mediated by the use of a thought bipolar: for example, those who are in favor of change are identified not only as the winners of the morning, but as the heroes of today; on the other hand, those who are resistant to change, they identify with professionals that are anchored in the past, and therefore in danger of extinction. Another example: companies willing to implement the change that the guru is proposed are identified with the future of the economy; in contrast, those who do not adhere to that change are the cause of the retardation of the economy of the sector in question, or even a whole country. With that search of the emotions of the audience, and that creation of success stories, the appellation “guru” takes on all its justification.

But not only the search of emotions is their role in the attitude persuasive of the gurus. Also what is the reasoning with the appearance of science: in it, we recreate the “demonstrations” of the truth of the budgets of the guru’s that do not involve both facts (as in the case of science), but only concepts (their own guru, it is understood). The appearance of science of the discourses of the gurus is reflected in the fact that the discrepancies in public among the gurus tend to be scarce: to dwell in the world of concepts, and to be subject to fads, it seems that there is space for a great variety of speeches.

How that translates to this dissemination of solutions looking for problems? Basically, in the difficulty of promoting, and getting, the same as the process of change. Once the concepts that have acquired the senior executives, through gurus and consultants, are brought to the company, starts a process of collective negotiation of meanings. In this process, the individual involved in the change, struggling to assign a clear meaning and coherent concepts involved in the exchange (“customer satisfaction”, “flexibility”, “quality circles”,…). The high failure rate of change initiatives in companies, it seems a clear indicator of the failure frequent this negotiation of meanings. And is that, as I have mentioned before, companies have their own history and their own conflicts, which do not always conform to standardized solutions based on visions of the future.

The study’s authors does not imply that change in organisations is based solely on emotions, but that shows us how these influence decision making. We could find good reasons to initiate a change in the organization, but then it’son the grounds, and not the persuasion emotional, which would have to bear the weight of the process itself.

Rather than finish today’s post with questions, I’m going to propose to the reader an interesting exercise: locating the discourses on the shift to which you have access:

  • References to successful cases, which are shown as generalizable to other situations.
  • Use of thought to be bipolar in the defense of a particular change initiative.
  • Reasoning with appearance of science, which involve demonstrations based on concepts, and not on facts.


López-Aranguren, Eduardo; Gómez-Rodríguez, Carlos. The rhetoric of change in organizations: an applied analysis. Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 2004.

Credits: Image taken from Khoa Bui International