Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Fascinating Power of Homeostasis

One phenomena of the power of homeostasis is that whenever a leader attempts to bring about change he or she will most certainly encounter sabotage. While we can find some comfort in the notion that reactivity is unimaginative, and therefore predictable, sabotage has a thousand faces. The fun thing about sabotage (if one can be non‐reactive about it), is that while we can expect it, we will always be surprised at the forms it takes.

Most of us will be surprised at the form the resistance takes.The preacher was annoyed because an elderly man kept falling asleep during his sermon every Sunday morning. So one day he said to the man’s grandson, “If you can keep your grandfather awake I’ll pay you a quarter every week.”

The ruse worked for two weeks. The old man was alert and listened to the sermon. But on the third Sunday the preacher found that the old man had fallen asleep again. After the service the preacher sent for the boy.

“I’m disappointed. Didn’t I promise you a quarter a week to keep your grandfather awake?” asked the preacher.

“Yes,” replied the grandson, “but Grandpa gives me a dollar a week not to disturb him.”

Homeostasis resists change in equilibrium, the "balance" in dynamics the system has developed over time. Every move toward change seems to be met with a countermove in the form of resistance,sabotage, entrenchment, confrontation, opposition, passive aggressive strategies, or sheer stubbornness. Experienced leaders never underestimate the power of homeostasis to reestablish systemic equilibrium.

The curious thing is that there appears to be no "logic" to the desire for maintaining equilibrium. Even if the change is acknowledged to be of potential benefit to the system, and to individuals in the system, change will still be resisted. The fascinating thing about homeostasis is that "getting better" does not trump maintaining equilibrium.

The good news is that some systems are more resilient than others, and therefore, more open to change for the better (developmental or evolutionary). Other systems are more "rigid," with homeostasis being a binding force. Systems that are organized around maintaining power, patterned around pathologies, and shaped by long multigenerational patterns may be among those most resistant to change. For these what seems to be required for change is reaching a tipping point where maintaining homeostasis becomes untenable. For example:
  • Reaching a point when it becomes clear that it's a matter of "change or die." But, some organizations die before they arrive at the point where that insight is accepted and acted upon.
  • A change agent with enough clout to push pass the impasse
  • A shift in the system in the numbers and/or influence in the ratio between those open to change and those resistant to change
  • A shift in a re-commitment to corporate values so as to bring about embracing vision, progress, relevance, and growth 
  • Sufficient pressure from outside forces or agencies to force change by overwhelming the resistance.
Leaders in any system do well never to underestimate the fascinating power of homeostasis. It's the the underlying force always at work in a system.

Adapted from Perspectives on Congregational Leadership, by Israel Galindo

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