The Alter Ego of Change

By Robert A. Goldberg

(Originally appeared in The OD Practitioner, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1998, pgs. 45-50)

It was late at night and I was far from home, in a hotel room writing up a feedback report for a client. As I typed into my keyboard, the blue white light glowing from my laptop computer threw unfamiliar shadows on the walls. My eyelids grew heavier as I struggled to find a novel way of telling the client, an executive team, what I knew they already knew. Suddenly, my head snapped back up as I realized that I had dozed off. I typed another line, “There is a perception that communication can be improved….”

As my typed words formed in front of me, a small dark shape emerged from the corner of the screen. It was like a silhouette, with human contours but no features. I blinked. Rubbed my eyes. It didn’t disappear. I pressed Alt-Cont-Del to reboot and get rid of the figure, whose presence, for no plausible reason, gave me goosebumps. No luck. It was still there, like a screen-saver icon that had lost its way.

“You know why,” I heard from the cheap laptop speaker, as the figure pointed its finger at me. Its voice was raspy, with an accusing tone.

“Why what? What question? Who are you?” I said in a rush, realizing that I’d been holding my breath all the while.

“You know who I am,” he said, the words dripping with ill will. And suddenly, I did know. He was my shadow, that part of myself I try so hard to keep in check. That part of myself I brag about being so aware of, but of which I am really so afraid. My Alter ego.

“I see that you do know who I am,” he said. “And, you also know why.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and, why what?” I replied, part of me galvanized by my shadowy Alter ego, another part of me trying to remember if I ate anything too spicy at dinner.

My Alter ego said, “Don’t tell me you haven’t been sitting here trying to figure out, despite your good intentions, why the organizations you ‘intervene’ in, ha, don’t seem to fundamentally change. Why the people continue to grouse about their heartless bosses while their bosses incessantly whine about the lack of commitment by the employees.”

He continued, “Don’t tell me you haven’t been sitting here wondering about the organizations that ask for your help to ‘manage change,’ ha, why you often don’t feel like you were too helpful. Why you worry over whether your ‘help’ makes any difference at all. Don’t tell me you aren’t asking why, more and more. And I say – you know why.”

I was stunned for a moment and needed time to regroup. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I repeated, feeling queasy but regaining my composure. “I know that I have counseled executives to value employee involvement in planning and implementing change. I have helped them empower their people by not only having them figure out what needs to be done, but by giving them the responsibility for working out how it should be done. I even have helped them co-create compelling visions with their people for a preferred future state, and then on to the first steps of….”

“Then why are you so nauseous?” My Alter ego interrupted, disdain dripping from his vowels. “Despite your psychobabble, I know that you secretly harbor questions about what it takes to make deep lasting positive change happen in organizations. I know you struggle mightily to work it out. And I know you have had a glimpse of things that have pointed you in the right direction. But even with all that glimpsing and all your processes, you still run from what you really know, don’t you? After all, I’m your Alter ego. I’m supposed to know these things.” He grinned, sensing correctly that he had me off balance, and that he had my full attention.

“So you have facilitated large system interventions, helped organizations move into team based structures, counseled, coached and (I hate to say it) even coerced when you believed your help was useful. Ah, poor boy, what you have done under the banner of ‘helping,’” he went on, almost compassionate now as his voice lowered to a coarse whisper.

My frustration suddenly welled over. “Who are you, anyway, to tell me this? Where were you when I helped the plant manager go back to the union and invite their participation? Where were you when I gave powerful feedback to that CEO about other peoples’ perceptions of him? And where were you when I helped that team push back the organization’s leaders about the unrealistic nature of its assignment? If you are my Alter ego, weren’t you there? Didn’t you see?”

“I suppose,” he replied, a little sullenly. “Sometimes, its true, you are in a fortunate position. And mostly you do the right thing – actually, the same things I’d do if I was in your place, which I am. But also I know you’ve thought long and hard about why sometimes it seems to click and other times it seems all for naught.”

I barely heard a word; by now I was really angry. “I know how to help organizations create a dominant coalition for change,” I yelled. “How important it is to communicate, communicate, communicate, how to honor the affirmative core of resistance, and to use that resistance as the lever for change.” Somewhat aware that I was screaming at my computer, it crossed my mind that maybe I had been working too hard.

Yet as my voice echoed in the room, my words started to play back in my head like a bad song you can’t get out of your mind. Over and over – vision, coalition, resistance, transition, like a mantra from hell, getting louder and louder.

And then it hit me. My Alter ego was right. I had been questioning what I was doing in the field of organization change and development. Things had gotten to the point that most times when I was on an assignment I could predict the dance steps, regardless of the partner.

First, I’d get a call from a human resources person, or sometimes the top executive. We’d talk about their situation. Of course, their firm was trying to find ways to stay ‘competitive,’ which I always heard as a euphemism that somebody at the top wasn’t happy with the way things were going, and that people had better get ready for the organizational tectonic plates to shift. Invariably, the conversation would move to cross-functional teams, re-engineering, doing more with less, and empowerment (the four horsemen of late twentieth century industry).

Next, as my curiosity grew and I would start to ask questions, we would get down to the basic issue: “We want your firm to come in and train our middle managers on how to be visionary leaders, not managers, how to be empowered and how to empower their people into greater productivity, and to bring a fresh perspective based on your many years of experience (this last request an amusing oxymoron).

Then, as our team would mobilize for the engagement, we would interview key sponsors and targets of change, and get a pretty good picture of why the organization was stuck. It was usually because the executives wouldn’t, as we say, walk their talk, or that people were feeling manipulated into changing, or that changing really meant losing something important, or that they were just dang plain content to be complaining about the way things are (one of the more satisfying human pursuits).

We’d end up assembling groups of people, but never in their own offices. We would feed back to them what they told us (but in our own words, to protect the guilty), and ask them if the words were accurate. We would lead them through exercises and processes that would simulate their work reality. And we’d then ask how the simulation mirrored their reality, wondering which was more real, the simulation or their work world.

Finally, they’d leave us with glowing reports about how much they learned about themselves and each other and how they’ll be able to work more collaboratively. They’d report how charged up they are about having conversations about the visions they created and about how excited they were about implementing the action plans they, themselves, wrote in their pretty little journals.

And our team would feel good, having discharged our responsibility with insight, ingenuity and a dash of spectacle. We might even get other assignments in the same organizations.

Then a fresh client would call. One would lead to another. A change in the palace guard might mean we’d lose one, but not because of us, no sirree, we were helping them manage change.

I could tell my Alter ego was listening, but by now I wasn’t speaking so much as thinking.

“Now you are starting to get it,” he sneered as I stared at my Shadow pacing across my computer screen. “You are starting to understand why. It’s not about this strategic mumbo jumbo that you and your jargon-drunk colleagues fall over yourselves about.” (Boy, was my Alter-ego merciless.)

“Okay, okay, OKAY!” I was almost begging now. “Please tell me what you think I know but really I don’t. Why don’t these companies change until they are up against the wall? Why don’t people have the courage to live out what they know needs to be done? Why don’t people change?!”

“You tell me.” I realized then that he was reading from my facilitator’s play book, throwing the question back at me. It can sure pinch when the shoe is on the wrong foot. He must have seen the despair cross my face, because he gave me a hint.

“You fall into the same traps your clients fall into,” he began. “While you talk change your work is really designed to maintain the status quo, which is to avoid real change. Here’s why: You are hired by people who have gotten to where they are by being acutely aware of how to attain, and then maintain, their power. Their dilemma is “how can I have profound change in the organization but maintain my power, my perks, my position?” In other words, how can I lead change without myself changing? Well, they can’t. So they ask you to change “them” (those people down the corporate food chain), and to come up with anything to deflect from the notion that the cause of their problems was more than likely the way they led the organization in the first place. So you’ll help them implement changes, but not change.”

“Even worse,” he continued, “simply by intervening on your clients’ behalf you may actually be helping them to consolidate and stabilize their power. Why? Because bringing in ‘the expert’ can be a clever and insidious way to tell the organization ‘we’re doing what I want to do.’”

“So Mr. Consultant, here you are, glibly deriding those leaders who do not ‘walk their talk’ but how willing are you to really challenge those that are paying your fare?”

I listened quietly, nodding my head, knowing the difficult truth of what he was saying.

“I may agree with some of what you say,” I said, not wanting to give him too much credit, lest his little Alter ego head fill too much of the screen, “but the executives I’ve worked with seem more than willing to let go of some of their responsibilities.”

“Exactly,” he countered. “But how often have you been invited into an organization to help them dismantle and rebuild their power structure? They may restructure other peoples’ lives, but isn’t it ironic how few times those in power restructure their own?”

I thought about this, remembering the engagements where I’d facilitated reorganizations. Most times, it wasn’t the people doing the reorganizing that were going to experience the pain of change, it was those out of the room – figuratively and literally. Emboldened, I took a stab at the point.

“The irony deepens,” I said, “when you consider that these people say they want to build participative management, and legislate empowerment as long as it doesn’t threaten the sacred hierarchy, or their status as leaders. What a double bind! If I’m a well intentioned manager or employee and want to be committed to the goals of the organization, to help make decisions and execute them, to find innovative approaches, I’ll be stymied by the very structures that are asking for my involvement. I’ll need resources or authority. I’ll be told to do more with less. I’ll say we can’t make the innovations work as long as the boundaries in the organization – communication, political and structural – remain closed. But they won’t open because the political power structure that got us here in the first place would then be threatened. So rather than feel empowered, my cynicism and mistrust grows. And I may not even be able to articulate my bind, but its there. Just read the attitude survey.”

Now it was my alter ego’s turn to take a stab – this time into me. “And look at you, talking about ‘these executives’ or ‘these people’ as if you weren’t part of the problem. Ah, the objective consultant. I’m not saying you aren’t aware of the key issues pretty early in what you call your ‘engagements.’ I’m saying you are – you know why – and you do the same thing those executives do, which is to place responsibility for the problem and the solution anywhere but on yourself. As I said, you fall into the same traps your clients do. Everybody else has to change, but not you.”

He took my silence as license to continue. “I know you’ve tried, and have even succeeded at transforming yourself at times so you could be truly helpful. At least you understand the paradox about transformation – that its not about transformation, its about being fully who you already are. And at least you don’t seek approval from your clients like you used to. I’ve even been with you when, despite your heart pounding and sweat glands flowing, you spoke a truth that helped move another person, and an entire organization. But how many times have you disengaged when you knew what you were doing was window dressing?”

“Twice,” I muttered, more depressed now than confused.

“That’s good. But not good enough. Not if you don’t want to be bothered in the middle of the night by Yours Truly.”

I sat back in my chair and considered what he was saying. So it came down to being fully available, Shadow and all. And to not censor the insights I gain about the client. It was about respecting my power to confront clients so they can make choices at deeper levels. Which includes choices about confronting their own fears of their own shadows. It turned out that my clients and I had much in common – both afraid of our fears. And both afraid of not being in control, which is what change really means for so many of us. It was really hard to face this darker truth, but at least this darker truth was becoming clearer.

As I thought these thoughts, the image of my shadow started to fade. “Wait,” I cried. “Don’t leave me. I need you.”

“I know. But don’t worry about me leaving you. I’m as stuck to you as you are to me. But I see that you are in touch with the work you need to do. So I can go make my mischief somewhere else. You’ll be okay. And then again, you won’t,” he snickered.

“Hold on!” I said, having gotten accustomed to my alter ego and his abuse. “You said I fall into the same traps as my clients, yet you only told me about one trap. What about all the rest?”

“Ah, it’s so obvious. You talk about implementing change, or managing change, in organizations as if change doesn’t happen all the time, as if change was something unique. There is nothing unique about change. Everything living grows. Everything living dies. The trap is mistaking what you do for change, which discounts change as nature really works. Thus, your work may accelerate change or may slow it down but it is only your ego that creates the distinctions. Because nothing ever stays the same.”

“Of course, you make matters worse by thinking that an organization is changing from point A, where you think it begins, to point B, where you think it ends. What rubbish. There is only transition. So what are destinations, what are goals? They are late nights in hotel rooms, simply safe places to catch your breath before you further become what you already are. It’s as true for organizations as it is for you, friend.”

And with that, my alter ego disappeared, and I was left staring at the beginning of the feedback report I had begun before his interruption. I remembered that the client group already knew what I was going to tell them, so that my work needed to change. More importantly, I knew that I needed to change myself to accomplish this. I would have to confront them at a deeper, less comfortable place, such as where the power was in the organization, and whether that power was in the right place for the fundamental changes they spoke about wanting could actually take root.

I knew it would be uncomfortable for me, leaving me vulnerable to rejection and invisibility, my biggest fears. That’s when I realized that my Alter ego was right to leave when he did, because I was aware of the real work I had to do – the work within myself. And I realized that if I wasn’t vigilant about this work that my little Shadow would be back with a vengeance, bad attitude and all. And finally, like my shadow, I knew that I too have the power to disappear and make mischief elsewhere. My client might not be ready for their work even as I was gearing up for mine, and that was okay. And with that, I turned off the computer and went to bed, ready for the changes to come.