Yes, It’s Personal: Embracing the Emotion of Organizational Change

The Four Player Model developed by David Kantor is at the core of the theory of structural dynamics.

By Seth Cohen

Recently I participated in a large gathering of stakeholders of one of the largest and oldest Jewish nonprofits in the world. The convening included a mix of individuals with varying levels of personal and professional connections with the organization and it’s mission – some had a history of over 30 years of service, and some were unfamiliar with the details of organization’s work. Participants demonstrated a wide range of power, expertise, and insight, and while the group did not encapsulate the full diversity of the Jewish community, there was, nonetheless, a diverse range of perspectives. But one thing was constant among all of the people in the room:

A deep sense of personal connection and commitment to the Jewish people.

I wasn’t surprised. I have seen this over and over again throughout my work in the Jewish community – the people that end of up these rooms (and many people outside of them) are there because they feel a deep sense of purpose and connection with Jewish faith, values, tradition, and community. They care about issues ranging from education to social justice, and topics ranging from the State of Israel to the state of Jewish communities around the world. Beyond these issues, they also care about the professionalism, creativity, and the excellence of the organizations that work to to deliver impact in all of these areas day after day, and year after year.

Even more than that, for those who have deeply committed their time, talent, and resources to organizations, their individual identities become deeply entwined within the organizations’ past, present, and futures. Social circles, and even families, often become related to others invested in the organization – and oftentimes meetings and conferences become places where these individuals live out values that were nurtured by their parents and commitments that they want to pass on to the next generation of their families and friends. In other other words, a deep investment in the work of these organizations fosters deep feelings within the individuals doing the work.

So when organizations change, whether in the face of opportunity or crisis, it is natural that stakeholders who have a deep connection to the organization are emotional about those changes. For them it IS personal – for the employees, it is their livelihood, and for the network of governance, supporters and allies, it is the embodiment of much of their individual purpose and passion. To expect these individuals to have a dispassionate perspective of the multifaceted nature of organizational change is not only naïve, but also counterproductive. Which leads us to an important point:

Embracing the personal depth of organizational change is a big part of what helps makes organizational change successful.

Far too often change initiatives focus on the statistical and the cerebral, using PowerPoints and position statements to shape dialogue and debate. Longitudinal studies and logic models are all valuable tools to help assess and identify opportunity, but they also often miss the deeply personal nature of what organizations represent to the very people making the decisions. For every PowerPoint slide, there is also a personal experience or reflection that colors the way the information is interpreted. And no amount of consulting or coaching can truly engage the natural emotions and memories of board and committee members.

In encountering these issues over the years, I have found the work of David Kantor to be deeply helpful. Dr. Kantor, a systems psychologist and founder of the Kantor Institute, developed a “four player model” of structural communication that helps leaders recognize and understand the four types of speech acts that happen “in the room.” Understanding these communications can help leaders create healthier, fluid conversations about challenges and change.

Beyond the four player model, Kantor also has identified the “heroic mode” of leadership communication, which grounds itself in the natural defensiveness that leaders feel when faced with substantial challenge. These heroic modes, that of the “fixer” (solving and overcoming), the “survivor” (accepting and persevering), and the “protector” (shielding and sacrificing), often manifest in light and dark modes, serving to provide communication in constructive (light) and destructive (dark) ways.

It is in these heroic modes that we wear our emotions on our sleeves, especially when it comes to organizations with which we have a deep emotional connection. Compound that with issues of faith, identity, continuity, and community, and it is easy to see how a roomful of heroic leaders can make organizational change feel complicated, especially if those heroic leaders square off on opposite sides of the very same organization. For these leaders, the crises their organizations are facing isn’t just a matter of “calling the question.” Instead, it is a matter of deep personal calling.

So how can community leaders and interventionists constructively engage these emotional, and often heroic, voices in organizational change? The first step is recognizing and acknowledging that organizational change is deeply personal, and creating enough space for individuals to share and express those personal feelings. Second, the use of modalities of personal reflection and storytelling within group interactions means that the fixers, survivors, and protectors all have ways to express their own styles of engagement in a “light” context. Third, by incorporating radical inclusivity within organizational change initiatives, community leaders can help bring diverse heroic voices into the room (especially since heroic voices that are left outside of the room can often manifest in the “dark,” destructive mode).

Yes, we are living in an era of design thinking and big data, and a moment when many institutions are facing the need for deep organizational change. Our tendency is to think analytically and objectively, and to eschew the irrational and emotional. But perhaps by understanding and embracing the emotional aspects of change, better leaders can build a more sustainable and more deeply resonant future for those very organizations that matter so deeply to so many.

Yes, its personal. And that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Seth Cohen is the founder of Applied Optimism, a community and experience design lab that helps companies, nonprofits, grantmakers and communities design optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. Seth can be reached at and at