Statistics from Karen Stenner on Authoritarianism — one-third of us is an authoritarian.

Why Agile Transformations Are So Hard

This might be the most important unheard-of lesson for any Agilist.

Many people — like myself — have made careers out of guiding big changes in organizations. Most of us have bumped into brick walls and glass ceilings that have derailed that process. A lot has been written about why change is hard. Perhaps the most famous business-related book is John P. Kotter’s Leading Change — the professional ‘Bible of Change Management’. But even if you follow Kotter’s eight-step model to the letter — or any other change model for that matter — there’s still a good chance that the sought-after change will fail in at least some areas. There is one huge aspect of Agile Transformations in particular that is usually overlooked yet is crucial to the success of the endeavor.

The most common argument to explain bumps in the Agile Transformation road is the fear of change that lives inside many people, especially — it often seems — in higher management. Tolstoy’s words, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself”, are apt in many organizations. While the hesitation to change might indeed be a contributor to Agile Transformation troubles, it might very well not be the biggest problem to face. A highly common predisposition towards authoritarianism could instead be the highest — and most unheard-of — hurdle.

Perhaps it seems like worlds apart, but the field of political psychology offers a clear and well-founded explanation for failures in Agile Transformations that is generally not addressed by Agilists. In 2005, Australian political psychologist Karen Stenner published her investigation into authoritarian personality types. In The Authoritarian Dynamic, she took a radically novel approach to the research. Until then the prevalent studies into authoritarianism were dominated by tests that asked people about their opinions about fascist or right-wing statements.

In 1950, for instance, German psychologist Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), together with others, published the highly influential book The Authoritarian Personality, in which they describe a methodology to measure people’s inclination toward fascism. Using what they called the F-scale — with the F for fascism — they distinguished nine personality traits that defined this Authoritarian Personality type.

Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer (1940) wasn’t satisfied with Adorno’s theories which were heavily based on Freudian pseudoscience. So, in 1981, he invented the so-called RWA-scale — the Right-Wing Authoritarian scale. But even though the RWA-scale was more scientifically reliable, it was still based on people’s expressed opinions on given statements. Stenner questioned how reliable such a test truly was since it didn’t measure people’s unconscious inclination towards right-wing ideas — instead only what they dared say out loud. She invented a very different kind of test.

First, Stenner explicitly made a distinction between conservatism and authoritarianism — where conservatives are averse to differences across time, authoritarians are averse to differences across space, as it were. Conservatives are happy to live among a very diverse group of people, as long as things don’t change that much or that fast — individualism could even be appreciated. Authoritarians, however, do not like diversity. They prefer order, conformity, oneness, and sameness — they would even prefer (radical) change if it meant transitioning towards more unity and less pluralism.

Stenner started testing people’s unconscious predispositions towards right-wing ideas by asking indirect questions related to childrearing. Respondents were asked, for instance, to indicate the qualities they considered most important to encourage in children by choosing between pairs of statements such as “that they follow the rules” or “that they follow their own conscience”, and “that they have respect for their elders” or “that they think for themselves”.

Stenner’s much-replicated research shows that about one-third of any group of people has a predisposition towards authoritarianism — meaning that they prefer order, conformity, oneness, and sameness over diversity, complexity, and ambiguity. Authoritarians show a lack of openness to experience, and even a lack of cognitive capacity.

Consequences of Stenner’s conclusions

For Agilists, the most important conclusion of Stenner’s research is that about one-third of the people are simple-minded avoiders of complexity rather than closed-minded avoiders of change. This is most important because in the Agile world there tends to be a focus on an aversion to change. Among Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters — and more widely among change managers in general — it is common to keep a stern eye on the people within an organization that act conservatively and would like to keep things as they are. It is only natural to assume these conservative forces are the biggest opponents of an Agile Transformation and therefore pose the biggest risk of failure to the process of the organization becoming more Agile. Based on Stenner’s conclusions I dare say our focus has been mostly wrong. We should have had our eye on the authoritarians all along.

Activism

Next to exposing unconscious predispositions, Stenner was curious about what would bring about political activism in authoritarian types — in other words, what would it take to trigger an authoritarian into action?

As it turns out, authoritarians are mostly triggered by normative threats — meaning, when they feel their norms and standards are being threatened from the outside. As Stenner put it, “Authoritarians are not especially inclined to perceive normative (indeed, any) threat, they are just especially intolerant once they do.” This conclusion affirms my notion that we Agilists should focus on authoritarians in our organizations since they form much more of an obstacle to the Agile Transformation we seek than any other group of people.

How to handle authoritarians

As Agilists naturally try to keep conservative forces in organizations close so we can guide and mold them through the changes we seek, we should also be looking for ways to engage and reassure the authoritarians if we want to succeed with our transformational efforts — one-third of an organization is a critical mass to be reckoned with.

Stenner provides some ideas on how to proceed with changes when it comes to authoritarians. Her research shows that authoritarianism is partly inherited — for about 50 percent. The other half is mostly triggered by a loss of trust in institutions, feelings of being under threat, and a fear of change. So, while we are taking our first steps in the organization towards more agility — by shaking things up and experimenting with new ways of working — a third of the organization’s people will exhibit more and more (extreme) intolerance. Stenner suggests that “nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes”. In other words, our Agile practices — for instance, by using the Scrum framework — could provide a stable basis for authoritarians to rely on. As long as everyone follows the same rituals and processes it will provide the comforting idea of, we’re all in this together.

There’s one caveat to address. Purist advocates of Agile will be more inclined to celebrate differences. If one team uses Kanban practices, another team uses the Scrum framework, and yet another group of teams creates their version of Spotify Squads, that would be perfectly fine with Agile purists since the teams should use the processes that work best for them — as long as it serves the agility of the organization. For authoritarian minds, however, this will be equal to workplace hell. As Stenner pointed out, authoritarians become more active when they feel normative threats, such as the described workplace hell. Thus, she maintains, “Paradoxically, […] it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness. […] This strategy is not nearly as daunting as it might sound, as it is the appearance of sameness that matters.” So, let’s not celebrate differences so loudly but instead focus on how Squads are actually just a different name for Teams. Perhaps not even call it Squads, but just Teams, and let them have their own mix of Agile practices the way they like — tolerate the differences but don’t stress them.

Ugh!

I can hear the disapproving grunts of many Agilists as I write this — I know. There is certainly a big part of me that would agree with the grunts and the eye-rolls if it weren’t for one other important conclusion that Stenner posed. She named her work The Authoritarian Dynamic, not The Authoritarian Predisposition, or simply The Authoritarians. She did that for a reason. With the description of a resulting dynamic, she issued a dire warning to a freedom-loving audience. As a political psychologist, she warned that when changes towards diversity and pluralism start to feel more and more threatening to authoritarians — we are talking about one-third of the population — they will be activated into extreme intolerance. In a democracy, authoritarians could make use of the system to overhaul itself. If you vote to have your freedoms taken away, that will happen in a democracy if you reach a certain threshold. Once that has happened, there is no easy turning back. Therefore, it seems wiser to keep the authoritarians somewhat subdued by maintaining a certain level of unity — or at the very least, the appearance thereof. The continuous coming and going of democracy, partly under the influence of authoritarian personality types, is what Stenner meant with The Authoritarian Dynamic.

What counts for life in a democracy, also counts for life in an organization — if you barge in, as a consultant, and spark radical changes left and right towards a much more complex environment than the traditional hierarchy that used to reign supreme, you are bound to wake feelings of normative threats in a substantial part of the organizations’ population. Before you know it, you end up in discussions with team members about how they self-managingly decided to work in a traditional waterfall mode again. “If it’s up to us — and you said it is! — we ditch Scrum altogether and go back to the way things were.” I’ve actually heard this phrase in real life said — or more like shouted — back to me. At the time, I thought the team members were railing against change. Now I conclude they were railing against complexity and ambiguity.

For more information on authoritarianism, visit Stenner’s website at https://www.karenstenner.com/

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Agile Coach ★ Scrum Master ★ Author ★ Speaker

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Patrick Heller

Patrick Heller

Agile Coach ★ Scrum Master ★ Author ★ Speaker

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