Who Moved My Cheese: Personal Responses Essay
The book ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ by Spencer Johnson reminds me of a time in my life when I suddenly lost a job that I liked. It was due to restructuring, and I had not expected that it would happen to me. At that moment I would have identified myself with the character Hem. Normally I am quite resilient and positive, but at that time I felt threatened and afraid because it was such a shock to find myself facing that situation. This was a difficult experience, and I learned a lot about myself through having to get back into the application and interview process to find another position. It took quite a few months for me to regain my usual composure, and this helped me to understand why some people resist change. If they have been in one job for a long time, they do not expect to have to leave it, and this causes fear and stress for them.
Someone who is a “Hem” character in an organization that is undergoing change can affect the change process very negatively. It may be that this person has invested heavily in the status quo, and this can motivate him or her to criticize new suggestions, and undermine the changes that are being implemented. This can be simply by making negative comments or ridiculing new processes, but it can extend also to refusing to co-operate and stirring up others to resist the changes. Some people who share this person’s views might form a clique of resistance, and if this group contains influential or powerful elements, then it might prevent important steps from being taken. Other members of the organization who can see the point of the changes being introduced, and can anticipate improvements as well as losses, will hopefully resist the negative talking and distance themselves from the group around the Hem character. In short, the Hem character can be a drag that slows down change and may influence others to do the same.
This book did make me appreciate a change in a new way, but perhaps not exactly in the way that the author intended. I appreciated the emphasis on the need for change in a modern organization, and I was also reminded that there are many different possible reactions to change in the corporate and business world. This is a useful reminder because things can move sometimes so fast that managers forget to take into consideration the human resources angle and the individual responses of people in the workplace. I was not impressed, however, with the simplistic view of employee motivation that the seeking for cheese represented. In my experience, people are not so single-minded about their work, and there are many factors that influence performance. Usually, also there are many sources of “cheese” in the workplace, and there is rarely such a clearly defined choice between co-operation and non-cooperation with change. Reality is a lot more complicated than this and this is the insight that I gained from reading this little story.
I think that the key to resolving resistance to change lies in communication and teamwork from the very earliest point onwards. Leaving people to work out their own response to mysterious “writing on the wall” creates uncertainty and fear. There is a need for group discussions about issues that affect each group, and one to one discussions between managers and their staff to ensure that everyone understands what the challenges are, as well as what the changes are. Too often people are told to adapt and change, but they do not fully understand why it is necessary and why it is being done exactly this way. The more opportunity people have to contribute to the process as participants rather than victims, the more chance there is that they will support change. Even if their views cannot alter the change that needs to happen and the size and timescale of that change, they surely can be consulted and listened to when it comes to selecting how to execute some of the intermediary steps.
I have mixed feelings about this book. In one way it is useful as a starting point for a discussion about change because it raises the key issues in a way that everyone can understand. I thought that the metaphor of cheese being hidden in a maze was a particularly unhelpful one for employees, however, because it implies that they are powerless, and at the mercy of the whim of management, or the marketplace, or other factors beyond their control. While uncertainty is a major part of life for organizations today, I would not depict this as running around a maze. Strategic planning should anticipate change, and ensure that it is introduced gradually, and in a controlled way, rather than a sudden shock. I think the book could be useful to introduce a management or team leader training session. I am not so sure about handing it out to all employees as if it were a blueprint for change. It could insult people because of its over-simple approach. Telling the staff that they are like mice in a maze could send all the wrong messages.
References: Johnson, Spencer. Who Moved My Cheese? New York: Putnam, 1998.