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The Psychology of Change

Change is a complex psychological process. Consider Frederick Perl’s Change Theory founded in Gestalt psychotherapy techniques. Arnold Beisser, M.D., author of “Paradoxical Theory of Change” explains. “The paradox of change is that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is—to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.

The Gestalt therapist rejects the role of “changer,” for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. He believes change does not take place by “trying,” coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is.

What has happened in the past fifty years to make this change theory, implicit in Perls’ work, acceptable, current and valuable? Perls’ assumptions have not changed, but society has. For the first time in the history of humanity, man finds himself in a position where, rather than needing to adapt himself to an existing order, he must be able to adapt himself to a series of changing orders. For the first time in the history of mankind, the length of the individual life span is greater than the length of time necessary for major social and cultural change to take place. Moreover, the rapidity with which this change occurs is accelerating.

With change accelerating at an exponential pace, it is crucial for the survival of mankind that an orderly method of change be found. The change theory proposed here has its roots in psychotherapy. It was developed as a result of dyadic therapeutic relationships. But it is proposed that the same principles are relevant to social change and that the individual change process is but a microcosm of the social change process. This certainly has repercussions in the workplace. We're not suggesting that managers become therapists, but rather that they gain an understanding of what goes on in the minds of their employees.

Disparate, unintegrated, warring elements present a major threat to society, just as they do to the individual and organizations. The compartmentalization of old people, young people, rich people, poor people, black people, white people, academic people, service people, etc., each separated from the others by generational, geographical, or social gaps, is a threat to the survival of mankind. We must find ways of relating these compartmentalized fragments to one another as levels of a participating, integrated system of systems.

Any change initiative that leaves some employees behind is doomed to failure. Only by integrating these factions and bringing everyone along, will the change "stick."