What If an Organization Will Not Change?

Jim Kouzes

Q: I just finished reading your fantastic book and have a couple of questions. When an organization will not change, do leaders leave in order to better themselves? Do you just walk away and let them sink? The other question I have concerns the small group of individuals who will not cooperate in achieving the group's goals, or do not have the necessary skills—and they will neither learn them nor change their behavior. What do you do, fire them?

A: You ask some terrific questions. Permit me to briefly respond to each:

"When an organization will not change, do leaders leave in order to better themselves? Do you just walk away and let them sink?"

Our research indicates very clearly that "personal values drive commitment." When a leader's personal values are highly consonant with the values of the organization in which they work, then the leader is more committed, more satisfied, more productive, more willing to stick around when times get tough, etc. But when personal values are not consonant with the organization's values, then the opposite is true. People will continue to stick around if the incentives are great enough, but only until they can find another job in an organization where the values are more congruent. This being the case, it would seem to me that sticking around benefits neither the person nor the organization. Also, I am not so sure that organizations will "sink" with the loss of one leader. It might, but I'm not sure that the loss of any one leader will cause the entire organization to fail. One could argue that the constant conflict and tension might do even more damage to the person and the organization.

"The other question I have concerns the small group of individuals who will not cooperate in achieving the group's goals, or do not have the necessary skills-and they will neither learn them nor change their behavior. What do you do, fire them?"

Firing employees is always a last resort and never the first intervention a leader should make. I don't have nearly enough data to respond fully to this question but the first thing I would do as a leader would be to ask "Why aren't people cooperating to achieve group goals?" An absence of cooperation on group goals suggests that people don't see how the group goals are in their best interests? Why is this the case? I could list many other questions I would want to ask before "firing" would become an option, and that would be my recommendation in this case. Collecting valid and useful information would be the first step I would take.

And the same is true for the question, "Why don't they want to develop the necessary skills or change their behavior?"

Is this really a skills issue—that is, could people do what is required if their lives depended on it? If they can, then it is likely not a skills issue but something else. What is the root cause here? It's just inconsistent with what we know about human motivation for people not to want to learn new things IF they can see how it will benefit them. So, I am left with more questions than answers. Before I conclude that people should be fired, I'd spend at least an hour or two in one-on-ones with each person involved, simply asking questions to try to understand what is going on, why they are working here, what their aspirations are, what recommendations they would have for improvement, what they need to do the very best they can do, etc. With that kind of information, I think I'd be better able to make an informed choice about what kind of action was required.

Thanks again for your provocative questions. We greatly appreciate it, and we wish you all the best.

Jim Kouzes is the co-author of the best-selling The Leadership Challenge and A Leader's Legacy.

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