How State reform produces vicious circles (People and Society)
Investigação | 19 janeiro 2016 How State reform produces vicious circles (People and Society)

It looks like an excess of change obstructs real change | Researcher: Miguel Pina e Cunha

“Reforming the State: Understanding the vicious circles of reform” was published in the European Management Journal in 2015. This invited essay, part of the series “Reflections on Europe”, results from research efforts conducted independently by the two authors in Portugal and in Greece. Tsoukas explored social reforms in Greece, whereas Cunha was attracted by the persistently Kafkaesque nature of the Portuguese state and the discontinuities that, paradoxically, impede real change from occurring. In short: an excess of change obstructs real change. In particular the essay discusses the emergence of vicious circles. The paper synthesizes and extends previous work.

The main argument of the text goes as follows: when reformers (1) see reform as a primarily structural endeavor; (2) assume that it should be managed from the top-down; (3) impose the reform through an authoritarian administrative culture; (4) consider that they need to change the system without necessarily having to change themselves, they are aligning a constellation of organizational factors that will potentially give rise to the emergence of vicious circles. These vicious circles will subsequently impede reform, which means that reformers undermine their own reform attempts.

First, when reform is seen as a primarily structural endeavor it is devoid of sensitivity to culture, context and process. The assumption underpinning it is simple and linear: reformers change structures and the rest will follow. The problem is that changing structures does not necessarily lead to deep change. In this approach people may be confronted with calls for change that they do not necessarily understand. Sensemaking efforts are potentially futile because of the generalist nature of the call. If, in addition, changes were preceded by other changes that were also unintelligible, people may start using rules in a mindless way. Sticking mindlessly to rules relieves people of anxiety. This is one reason why so many state organizations, over time, acquire Kafkaesque traits. In a Kafkaesque organization people do not understand the rules and yet they actively participate in their enforcement, thus reproducing and perpetuating them.

Secondly, when a process is imposed from the top it often creates feelings of powerlessness throughout the hierarchy. Over time, people learn that there is nothing they can do. In this sense, reforms are paradoxically supposed to be executed by people who think themselves powerless. The question then is: how can change be produced by people who think that they do not have the power to effect change? Imagining a revolution without revolutionaries can offer an approximation to this practical problem.

Thirdly, when the reform is imposed via an authoritarian administrative culture, the above perception of powerlessness is reinforced and the existing circuits of power are further reinforced – even if reform requires a new power circuitry (Deroy & Clegg, 2015). This system becomes inoculated against change and the idea of reform loses its motivational appeal, potentially becoming just another phase in a rhetorical game without substance.

Finally, when reformers consider that they need to change the system without necessarily having to change themselves, they will be stabilizing the system they claim they want to destabilize. In this sense, each new reform may actually render the system less re-formable as every new attempt will only make the vicious circle stronger. Studying organizational vicious circles, the authors suggest, may constitute a highly informative way of learning about reform.

Publication Details: Cunha, M.P. & Tsoukas, H. (2015). Reforming the State: Understanding the vicious circles of reform. European Management Journal, 33(4), 225-229.

What's happening