Homeostasis and Leadership Training

Another great guest post, this time from Integration Training team member Francis Briers discusses leadership training and homeostasis.


Homeostasis – Why people need coaches and organisations need consultants

Why is change difficult?  In reality change is happening all the time, we can’t stop it, we don’t even really need to ‘manage’ it.  And yet, when we want to make a change and strike out in a new direction it’s tough.  Think about it: in your body right now cells are dying, regenerating, dividing, and growing – that’s real change.  We make thousands of choices everyday, even just the route we walk to work, and in doing so we change direction many times – sometimes subtly but a change in direction none-the-less.  Within organisations we respond to changes in the market place on a daily basis and when a team or department becomes less necessary due to those changes it is often a sufficiently gradual change that attrition and in-house recruitment in other divisions can be allowed to take up the slack. These are all the kinds of changes we generally accept as par for the course, so change itself is not necessarily difficult.

Within the human body when it is in a reasonably healthy and functional state the changes that occur are within certain acceptable bounds.  Other changes are controlled very carefully.  Your temperature for instance: if your temperature were to rise by 10 degrees your body would respond very swiftly to cool you down (by sweating for instance) or warm you up (by shivering) depending on which was necessary.  The body is pre-programmed to manage change within these acceptable bounds.  This is the key: there is change which is normal and acceptable, and there is change which is not acceptable.  Homeostasis is the process by which your body maintains its operational equilibrium.  The same process is at play psychologically, it’s why when we try and make a significant change in behaviour we will often slide back into old habits.  Many of our friendships will be with people who are attached to similar mindsets, value systems, and beliefs too so sociologically we are geared to homeostasis.  Anyone who has given up an addiction will know that success is extremely difficult unless you have a support network who are separate from the ‘community of practice’ you have established while involved in the addiction.

Organisations are organic systems too, and just the same as your body and your personal psychology, they have a form of homeostasis.  There are acceptable changes and there are unacceptable ones.  One name for this could be ‘Company Culture.’  This kind of organisational homeostasis is what can make change so difficult.  Homeostasis is not a bad thing, in our bodies it is a significant factor in keeping us alive, and in personal psychology and organisational culture, it is part of what gives us internal coherence and a recognisable sense of identity.  However, if you are trying to make a substantial shift in that identity then it is worth understanding how to make homeostasis your friend rather than your enemy.

In order to make a change we have to move from one state to another.  Let’s say you want to exercise more.  Once you have established that as a norm homeostasis will actually help you maintain it, but in the transition from half an hour exercise a week to half an hour exercise a day homeostasis will drag you back every step of the way.  It’s just the same in organisational change: if you are trying to change something which is an established part of the culture (and it’s rare that everything which is established has been deliberately chosen) then you’ll be fighting all the way until you establish the change as an integrated part of the culture.

In the human body the agents of change which affect aspects of the organism normally maintained by homeostasis are usually either diseases or long term practice.  Diseases cause changes in our temperature, for instance, very swiftly and sometimes for large periods of time, but once our antibodies are on the case even this kind of extreme change is usually fought off and homeostasis reasserted swiftly.  In modern medicine there are also ‘retro-viruses’ which are viruses (diseases) which have been altered to have a beneficial effect.  Long term practices such as meditation, changing thinking habits, or working with bio-feedback, can enable us to be able to change our body temperature, or breathing rate, or heart rate at will – these are all factors which are usually restricted in change by homeostasis.

Leadership Consultants are like Diseases

It’s not a very flattering comparison, but coaches and consultants are like diseases (!) or perhaps it’s better to think of them as retro-viruses.  You introduce them into your life or an organisation and they can affect change quickly.  However, the psychological or cultural anti-bodies (the agents of homeostasis) will swiftly undo this work unless you embed it as a new psychological or cultural norm.  This requires long term commitment and work (or practice).  Many people go to a coach to get support in making a change, see the change start to happen and then stop seeing the coach – they think because the change has happened that the work is done.  In some cases this will be true, but in the vast majority I would recommend continuing to see the coach and perhaps gradually decreasing the frequency of the sessions over time.  Long term change usually requires long term support.  In organisations it’s similar.  Let’s take the example of a management development program: a consultancy is brought in to deliver a new program for the company, it’s a really different approach and injects the participants with a whole new perspective to bring to their work and share with their colleagues.  That alone is going to be tough to maintain even just for the individuals.  It’s not impossible and if they’re well supported then these newly trained leaders can be the first wave in transforming the company culture.  Just like individuals, organisations often stop at this point.  It will be tough for these few individuals to maintain their momentum without more people being trained, but the change has happened right?  We’ve seen this revolutionary program and now our Learning and Development (L&D) team can run it in-house for the next round of participants.  Great idea, except that the L&D team are part of the organisation, they are immersed in the very culture you are trying to change.  Even the best internal L&D team will be blocked more often than they get to run with the ball if they are working against the prevailing culture.  This will have become part of the organisational norm for them.  They’ll start subtly adjusting the course to be more tolerable for the organisation until it is just an extension of the existing culture.  The participants love it so it’s a big success….but nothing changes.  If you want really significant organisational change you need to keep making interventions from outside the system, until you have embedded a new norm.  Once this embedding the process has happened homeostasis will keep the new culture in place better than anything you could plan.

Does this all mean that I think internal L&D teams are redundant? Of course not.  I do think that involving a consultancy on an extended basis is your best chance of making a substantial cultural shift.  Quite apart from any specialist expertise they may have, just the fact that they come from outside is an advantage, if you exist within a system you absorb the norms whether you like it or not.  For L&D teams and change agents within any organisation to be at their most effective they need to be prepared to be outsiders.  Get ready to be the fly in everyone’s ointment, get ready to be seen as a disease!  This is the uncomfortable reality about real change: the system doesn’t want it.  You may want the results of it, you may want to be thinner or healthier, or you may want an organisation which has better employee engagement or a happier atmosphere, or a more creative R&D environment; but the system is ok just where it is.  So whether you are a coach, independent consultant, or internal consultant (L&D or otherwise), know that sometimes you will be swimming against the current at the very least.  You might even be the whipping boy for the entire organisation’s inbuilt resistance to change.  And if you’re not a coach, leadership consultant, or in the L&D team: show these guys a little love, they’re the weirdo outsiders for a reason.


You can find out more about Francis and his leadership training, team building and personal development work here.