The Ethics of Change

The Ethics of Change

Engaged as I am in what some might choose to call a “change programme”, I’ve had some occasions to ponder recently the ethics of change.

It is ethical to change people? Even given the truism that we can’t change others, we can only change ourselves, is it ethical to even contemplate changes to a system (the way the work works) with the idea of maybe seeing some behavioral changes in the folks working within that system?

As my ethical system these days is fairly bound up with nonviolence, for me the question resolves to “is asking questions with an intent to raise folks’ awareness actually a kind of violence?”

And given that’s what I’ve been doing recently —asking such questions—how far can one travel down that road before it becomes an act of violence? Put another way, where does “making meaningful connections with folks, through dialogue” end, and “coercion through asking leading questions” begin?

My working position on the question, presently, revolves around the twin notions of informed choice and need.

Informed Choice

To the extent that people realise what’s going on, and that they understand that they have a choice whether to participate or not, then I can live with the situation.


In the vernacular of Rosenberg, do folks need some change? If not, then forcing or coercing anyone into change seems to cross the ethical line. But how to broach the question of needs with each individual? Is even asking the question, starting the conversation, on dodgy ground. How about if we ask the question “Would you be willing to have a conversation about the prospect of change here, and what your needs might be therein?”?

What about folks that don’t realise what’s going on? Or have not (yet) understood the optionality of the situation? Does it behove us to do everything possible to help them understand, or is that effort—in the absence of their consent and need for realisation—in itself unethical?

– Bob

  1. Bob, I agree that as long as it is an informed choice, it’s ethical to ask questions, have discussions with people, propose things that could changed, etc.

    Openness and honesty are important for me in any change initiative. This includes that I tell people my reasons for doing things, and explain why I do them this way. During the years I’ve seen a lot of appreciation for this from the people that I’m working with. It also gives people freedom to do or not do things, and to bring in whatever they have that can contribute to the things that we want to accomplish.

  2. But given that we are generally trying to change a system and are asking people to buy-in to and adapt to that new system are we really trying to change people? I’m not sure that helping people adapt to changing environments (a natural reaction) and trying to change someone are necessarily the same thing – although some managers may not see or understand the distinction.

  3. Bob,

    In the context of business, a change programme will presumably has some sort of sponsor who wants to “drive” the change into a group of people who “need” to be changed (by the sponsor). If you are being paid by that sponsor, then you are merely an agent for that sponsor. A catalyst. You have choices on your style of intervention.

    The objectives that the sponsor lays down will invariably lead you to a particular style of intervention. Nonviolent communication (which is only one style of communication) might not get you to the objective in the most effective way. The party or parties might not like it if you are being dispassionate, disconnected and even disinterested when asking your nonviolent questions – as you highlight.

    For me, understanding the context is an absolute pre-requisite before an effective intervention. The best (initial) language for this is the language of listening. And if you have to communicate, then you can’t go too wrong with Clean Language. Not sure where the non-violent piece fits in there, but if the sponsor is paying you to change something you are uncomfortable about then, as a free agent, you have a the defining choice to stay or to move on!

  4. Two and a half thousand years ago Buddha said:

    “The end of all meeting is parting, the end of all building is destruction, the end of all gathering is dispersal, the end of all birth is death.”

    You can’t avoid change and be alive. If businesses stay static they fail in the struggle for survival and are gone anyway.

    I think that being non violent is involving people in the inevitability of change by asking them to participate. The violence is the violence of imposition and the Taylorist programme of coercion and carrots and sticks. We have a false picture of a static company in a static environment because of the slow collapse over the 1970’s and 80’s, and people do love to complain.

    So, change is inevitable, true participation in the decisions should be part of the process. But necessarily some people won’t be happy and will feel violence may have been done. Also, the majority will vote for the steady state because that’s where they feel comfortable – and that will kill your enterprise anyway, so the visionary sometimes needs to be allowed to follow that crazy idea and take people with her (as many as will come).

    It’s a very hard question, I agree that it needs to be done with a great deal of humanity and tact. But it can’t be avoided either.

  5. I believe that the story of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and thereby being thrust out from the carefree Garden of Eden is about growing up and becoming aware of more comprehensive ethical demands. It does do violence to one’s world view as much as being born does.

    Sometimes such violence seems quite necessary to growth and life itself. Do not shrink from it in fear and trembling but embrace it and help others to tolerate and even enjoy the profound experience. That is, cushion the ride for them as any friend would incline to attempt.

    I would have suggested another o in behove but for the pleasing fact that it took only moments to find that it is the British spelling and pronunciation and enjoys widespread acceptance in the language that separates us, across the pond.

  6. Hi Bob, This passage from NVC: A Language of Life came to mind when reading your post: “Requests are received as demands when listeners believe that they will be blamed or punished if they do not comply. We can help others trust that we are requesting, not demanding, by indicating our desire for them to comply only if they can do so willingly. The objective of NVC is not to change people and their behavior in order to get our way; it is to establish relationships based on honesty and empathy that will eventually fulfill everyone’s needs.”

    I think this should accomplish your “change mission” without doing too much violence (if any) to your organization. I would be interested to hear if you think you can do what Rosenberg advises in your case – and if so, how would you accomplish it? Some people may want to hear it in black and white (i.e. in the written word or policy), while others might want to hear that they will not be blamed or punished from seeing how people are treated around them and how their managers enact this policy, etc. Perhaps a mix of both written policies, procedures and recommendations along with leading by example is the best approach. Are there other things that can be done.

  7. Insightful post Bob. I argue (for the lack of a better word) almost daily with people in my organization about this. I am a strong believer in helping people understand where they are, where they want to be and how to get there.

    Change is constant and what irks me the most is mandated change that’s given a name and a deadline irrespective of the feelings and thoughts of the people affected by the change.

    Actually, organizations and people that label others as ‘resisters’ irks me the most.

    Change cannot be forced, scheduled and budgeted for.

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