Viparinama-Dukkha: The Suffering of Change (Management)

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“Dukkha [the Pali word translated as ‘suffering’] is further used to describe the disappointment that comes when things we are fond of inevitably change and slip through our hands. The Pali term for this is viparinama-dukkha, meaning the suffering of change, which the second noble truth explains is caused by craving and attachment.”

—Andrew Olendzki, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 2020

Change resistance. It’s the topic of thousands of papers and articles in the field of change management and beyond. It’s been covered from just about every angle imaginable to help change agents “overcome the barrier” of it.

When resistance arises, so the traditional advice goes, it occurs “in them,” the group who doesn’t know the good that will come if only they listen, the group that’s been burned before or are undergoing “change fatigue.” The framing all feels patronizing, condescending. It’s written for the change leader, the presumed Knower of Change, so the change leader is cast as the protagonist. But still. There are some important stones left unturned as it relates to the viparinama-dukkha of it all.

Note: for a fuller and more balanced picture of change resistance, see Resistance To Change: The Rest of the Story, a 2008 paper in The Academy of Management Review. Here’s how the paper opens:

“Prevailing views of resistance to change tell a one-sided story that favors change agents by proposing that resistance is an irrational and dysfunctional reaction located ‘over there’ in change recipients. We tell the rest of the story by proposing that change agents contribute to the occurrence through their own actions and inactions and that resistance can be a resource for change.”

Craving and attachment in change management

There’s the craving of the change agent to get buy-in and gain traction. There’s the attachment certain employees may have to existing ways of operating. Deeper than that, there’s the craving of that change agent to drive progress because their job may be on the line. And there’s the attachment of those employees to doing what they know — because they may be too scared to, even if temporarily, appear inadequate (also because they may feel their job is on the line).

Deeper still: some of these cravings and attachments aren’t so much about the job as they are about how the job allows them to provide for their families and survive.

And deeper than all of that is another fear, one that pulses within all of us to varying degrees: we don’t really know how we got here, and why, and many of us are attached to the narratives we’ve created to fill in those gaps. It’s natural, even helpful at times, to have such anchors, but it’s the great unsaid when we’re talking about resistance in change management. Change is particularly hard because the status quo provides a sense of certainty in our uncertain lives.

Change management leaders would do well to mindfully map out the areas of craving and attachment across the three levels of change management, while keeping in mind that a changing environment serves as the fertile ground not only for these kinds of tensions but also for creativity.

Change management and creativity

In a paper titled A Dynamic Definition of Creativity (Creativity Research Journal, 2019), Chetan Walia offers this definition:

“Creativity is an act arising out of a perception of the environment that acknowledges a certain disequilibrium, resulting in productive activity that challenges patterned thought processes and norms, and gives rise to something new in the form of a physical object or even a mental or an emotional construct.”

The key here is “…a certain disequilibrium.” Change managers are often too tangled in their cravings and attachments — too tied to the change management process unfolding precisely as they painstakingly mapped it out — that they fail to see the metaphorical creativity mud they are standing in.

As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says: “No mud, no lotus.”

So how can change managers at once hold the viparinama-dukkha and spark creativity? Here are a few loose entry points:

  1. Leverage the power of creative boundaries. From Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter to today’s bootstrapping innovators, having and/or setting boundaries can ignite creativity. Necessity is not the mother of all invention. For a more in-depth read on this, check out Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation over at Harvard Business Review.
  2. Co-create. The most successful change management initiatives (both in the short and long term) are those that, at an early stage, welcomed a variety of voices — including those from seeming agitators. The notion of the lone creative genius is mostly a myth. Creativity and innovation, especially if it is to be sustained, is a collaborative and co-creative process.
  3. Hold close the universality of suffering. Recognizing and fully internalizing the suffering of change helps nurture the seed of compassion — and compassion is far better fuel for creativity in the face of change resistance than anger or frustration at “irrational and dysfunctional resisters.

Compassion also sets the change leader up to have a cleaner intention, and research continues to show the profound benefits of compassion and purity of intention when we bring it into our relationships.

As Buddhist teacher and mindfulness pioneer Jack Kornfield said in his Power of Awareness course:

“A key to mindful and compassionate relationships is mindfulness of intention. Intention brings results. If you bump into someone accidentally, you apologize and you get on with your lives. If you bump into that same person in the same way because you’re angry at them, you create a whole other terrible circumstance of suffering– the same act, but a different intention. Our brains, modern neuroscientists now know, are wired to feel and track the intention of another. And depending on the intention, there will be different outcomes.”

And keep in mind that multiple intentions are often at play simultaneously. This is why the contemplative work of mapping them can be so beneficial.

Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal puts it like this:

“Often, multiple intentions operate together. In shopping for groceries we might be motivated by wishes to eat healthily, to save money, to buy fair trade products, to impress friends coming to a dinner party, to be comforted, or to have pleasure. If we only think our intention is to shop, we may not consider these other purposes that inform why and how we shop.”

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