Will high unemployment create a "burning platform" to encourage government change?

Steve Kelman learns and teaches in Spain.

I am in Spain for a few days to teach two executive education half-day classes for the ESADE Business School public administration program, in Madrid and Barcelona. Spain, interestingly, has some of Europe’s finest business schools. The topic: leading change in the public sector.

There is probably no more famous idea about how to get change initiatives started than the metaphor – famed from hundreds of consultant slide shows over the years – of the “burning platform.” The image comes from the idea that workers on oil rigs will feverishly resist any efforts to change how they do their jobs unless and until their rig catches on fire. The basic idea is that organizational employees will resist changing how they work absent a crisis – absent a situation where they must “change or die.”

Well, if this approach has merit, it would have merit here in Spain. Unemployment is officially running at 23 percent, though there is a vibrant underground economy that means these numbers are somewhat exaggerated. The country’s budget deficit hovers at over 10 percent of GNP. As anyone following news from Europe and the Eurozone crisis is aware, the tribulations of the Spanish bond market are the stuff of international headlines.

In the two executive education sessions I taught to senior public-sector managers who themselves are trying to bring change to their organizations to survive draconian budget cuts (mostly in local government rather than national), we talked about whether the fear of a crisis may induce is an effective way to gain employee acceptance for the need to change the way the organization does business.

The answer seems to be maybe – but maybe not.

In my discussions with them, many of these managers said they have been motivating their change efforts to their employees by referring to the crisis facing the Spanish public sector. Does it work? Well, the managers weren’t sure.

There are two kinds of problems. One is that many employees are skeptical of the message. Reflecting general human psychology, many argue back that the economic crisis isn’t their fault (it was brought about, they say, by the shenanigans of the speculative construction sector that collapsed, not by civil servants) or that, even if other government organizations are insufficiently productive, their own organization is performing well (the well-known phenomenon of “positive illusions,” whereby most people believe they are above average). So some, despite general talk of crisis, don’t believe it applies to them. Perhaps they are hoping that budget cuts will be reversed at the last minute, or that somebody else will figure out how to save money elsewhere in the organization.

 The opposite problem is that some employees believe the message too much and react with a kind of paralysis. One manager reported that his efforts to get employees to develop suggestions for business process improvements that could help the organization be more efficient have met with blank stares. There is research evidence that people who are frightened react by working harder at what they already do – so, for example, a crisis may be a good way to lower absenteeism from work – but that frightened people are less creative in coming up with new ideas.
As budget cuts kick in in the U.S., we are going to face some similar change management issues. I am inclined to think that federal managers should look for more creative ways to encourage employee support for changes than the old “burning platform” saw.