Transcript: Learning To Change

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Interview with Amy Wrzesniewski
Recorded at the Yale Publishing Course 2015

For podcast release Monday, July 27, 2015

KENNEALLY: Change has come to publishing. That’s hardly a news flash. We are all familiar with the digital transformation of books and related media such as news. But the change that’s rarely spoken of is what happens to our work and our workplaces.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Amy Wrzesniewski studies how employees shape their tasks, interactions and relationships with others in the workplace to change both their work identity and the meaning of their job. She is Professor of Organizational Behavior for the Yale School of Management and has engaged in research projects with IBM, Google, Sun Microsystems, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and many others.

She’s served as editor and contributor to Identity in the Modern Organization, a textbook used by leading organizations and business management schools which integrates multidisciplinary theories and research on identity and the shifting cultures in modern organizational work environments. She has joined the Yale Publishing Course in New Haven this summer for a discussion on managing organizational change, navigating a way forward. And we welcome her to Beyond the Book. Professor Wrzesniewski, welcome.

WRZESNIEWSKI: Thank you so much, Chris. I’m happy to be here.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re delighted to chat with you because there was a lot to learn in your presentation here. There is change throughout publishing. We tend to focus on the change in formats, the change in consumer attitudes and behaviors. But all this change is happening in organizations. And it was interesting to hear how your research can apply to those kinds of change and how the managers who attend Yale Publishing Course can learn from that research.

And so I wonder about the nature of change itself. And you study it in so many different ways. Can you give us a sense of particularly why communicating in change is so important? Publishers are communicators by nature, but they may not be doing enough communication. Tell us about why that would be essential.

WRZESNIEWSKI: I think there are many reasons why communicating during periods of change is essential and why it’s so hard to do. So first of all, when organizations are going through periods of change, uncertainty spikes, both for managers but also for employees as well. So people are feeling under threat. People want more information, they want more control, if you will. But it’s often the instinct of people in the organization to give less, because they too are uncertain. They want to avoid conflict, they want to avoid problems. And together you can see how this just exacerbates a cycle that becomes quite difficult.

KENNEALLY: Well, you would think though that, again, as publishers, they’re accustomed to communicating. What are some of the tips you could give them to bring them out of their shell, to make it possible for them? At one point in your presentation here at Yale Publishing Course, you said there’s no danger in over-communicating. You can’t do too much of this at these critical moments.

WRZESNIEWSKI: I think that the advice that I would give there, and what the literature shows, is that the more managers and organizational leaders are communicating with members about what it is that’s happening in the competitive environment, what it is that the organization itself is thinking of with respect to new strategies, change sort of generally, the less likely it is that change will take employees by surprise. And though managers and leaders may often feel like all they do is communicate about what it is that’s happening, what it is they’re thinking about, what it is that may be coming, what matters more is how communicated with do employees feel?

And there’s often a big gap there, where they feel that they don’t know as much about what managers and leaders are thinking or what changes might be on the horizon or what changes might be coming in the organization itself. Hence my advice that the more you’re communicating, the more people understand that this really is the future direction of the organization, the more likely it is that they will internalize or at least resist less that this is the direction that things are moving.

KENNEALLY: As a way to get people to focus on change, you threw up an image of the god of change in the Roman deities, Janus. And he looks forward and backward, kind of stuck in the present but seeing both of those perspectives. And that raised the question of allegiances and alliances. One’s alliances can be with the past. It can be with the future. They can be with managers who are part of the emerging business or managers who are with the traditional business. Talk about that. Talk about the difficulty in making that bridge between the past and the future.

WRZESNIEWSKI: It’s an incredibly difficult bridge to make for the following reasons. So if you think about what it takes to change, whether you’re talking about an individual introducing change into their own life or an organization changing, part of what that rests on and relies on is creating some kind of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

In order to be motivated to change or to move into some future state or form or strategy or product, there has to be dissatisfaction with staying with the way things are. That, in and of itself, creates tension between people who may feel that they represent the old guard or the traditional way of doing things in the business and what it is that might be coming.

And so, in order to get people motivated to engage in change, you need to create this dissatisfaction with the status quo, but you must do it in a way that doesn’t denigrate or devalue the things that have brought your business or your organization to where it is today.

KENNEALLY: So dissatisfaction with status quo, that could be about instilling fear. That’s not what you mean, though.

WRZESNIEWSKI: No. It’s not what I mean. So that’s certainly one way that we see this happen. But the other way to create dissatisfaction with the status quo is to create a motivating and positive vision of the future, that, for example, if we’re an organization that is selling sort of three different products and we’re making some headway in that, what would it look like if we were in a universe where we were selling an entire line and we were taking care of markets in the way that we’re not able to now, wouldn’t that be an incredible future, for example, is very different from dissatisfied with the status quo or else.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, you know, this session of the Yale Publishing Course, which happens every year here in the summer at New Haven, I’m told has about 50-50 students or conference goers from the U.S. and North America and the rest of the world. Are these kinds of issues cultural bound? Does it matter if you’re coming from an Asian culture or an African culture or a European one?

WRZESNIEWSKI: That’s a terrific question. My way of teaching organizational change, because I am an organizational psychologist, has very much to do with what human beings do when they are reacting in times of uncertainty. And again, the same principles that would apply in their own lives in terms of introducing change to the structure of their personal life, many of those things translate into what it is that people naturally do when they feel under threat, uncertain, like they are losing autonomy because things are changing around them in their organizational lives.

And so though there are cultural differences in all things, the universals in this case, I think, outweigh those differences.

KENNEALLY: People are people. And one of the things that people do, of course, is work. That’s what you study. And another aspect of your research has been to look at how people think about their work. And I believe it’s broken down in terms of jobs, careers and callings. And something that’s really important about publishing is people don’t get into it, usually, to make a lot of money. There’s a joke about, if you want to make $1 million in publishing, you start with $2 million. So it probably has more of those who find themselves in the calling category than perhaps in just the jobs or the career category.

But talk about that and, if you could, relate it to this notion of change. Can we find a calling at a time when things are just so disrupted and so dynamic?

WRZESNIEWSKI: Another terrific question. I think the bridge between the research that I do on work orientation and the experience of work as a calling and change is a rather interesting one because, while people who see their work as a calling see their work as a fulfilling end in and of itself, where they often see the work that they do as having a positive impact on the world in some way, they are attached to the work. They’re not necessarily defining their attachment to the domain of work via the organization.

That may be a good thing from the point of view of thinking about I am a publisher, I am an editor, I am an author, all of the various kinds of work that people do in this industry, and to believe that this work domain in their life is about that craft. And given that, if the market is shifting, if the universe is shifting around that, it may create more flexibility in finding a way to apply that craft in a changing set of environments.

That said, I have colleagues who have also done research on callings, and they’ve studied, of all people, zookeepers, because zoo keepers have very deeply, passionately held callings. They’ve often decided that they wanted to work with animals from a very early age. And they see this as sort of their duty to the universe.

And on the flip side of what I’ve just said, one of the things that they find – so this is Stuart Bunderson and Jeff Thompson who have done this work – that people with strong callings in that sense, in this duty-bound sense, can be more rigid in the face of there is one right way to do this work, there is one right way to engage in this work that they’re so passionate about. And so that may –I think it’s an empirical question about whether, in a time of change in particular, are people with callings buffered or perhaps even more exposed?

KENNEALLY: That’s fascinating, because I was just thinking that someone listening to this from Silicon Valley would say are you still talking about the digital transformation? That’s 20 years ago. And publishing still is talking about that.

WRZESNIEWSKI: Absolutely. I’ve been teaching in the Yale Publishing Course for a few years now. And I am always struck, in the conversations that I have with participants and their questions, in their commentary, at just how long a process change is. These kinds of things take multiple years to wind their way through organizations. Organizations go through multiple changes, because perhaps the first one didn’t go well or it wasn’t the right kind of change, or it was the right kind of change, but you need to continually engage in this process.

I just had a comment from someone in the classroom just a few moments ago about an acquisition that had been recently made by his organization, which, again, sort of as we move into this digital future, these kinds of things will continue to evolve. It’s still winding its way through.

KENNEALLY: Well, we look forward to chatting with you again about the subject, perhaps next year at the Yale Publishing Course. We have been talking with Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, who is Professor of Organizational Behavior for the Yale School of Management and has presented here at the Yale Publishing Course in New Haven. Professor Wrzesniewski, thanks so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

WRZESNIEWSKI: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been lovely to be here.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our Website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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