Explaining Trump: or “Stop The World – I Want To Get off”

November 24, 2016

A good argument can be made for explaining Donald Trump’s shocking success in the US presidential race as a case of badly managed change. Bad change management is also an explanation for the surprising success of Brexit.

In order to explain Trump’s success we have to go way back to our first principles of change management – Compliance vs. commitment. Compliance is a response to a negative perception of change that results in – ‘I have to do it this new way’. Commitment on the other hand is a response to a positive perception of change, resulting in – ‘I want to do it this new way’. We have learned that change that results in commitment is much more likely to be accepted and to ‘stick’ than change that is only complied with.

This difference is shown in what we call ‘the zipper slide’.



The white working class voter, on which Trump and Brixit depended, has gone through a lot of social and individual change, most of which has been introduced by forcing compliance. It’s clear that these people have had enough and are pushing back.

Too much compliance, not enough commitment

These three areas of social change are examples of how Trump supporters could have responded:

   1. The push for green energy

Green energy comes with unsightly and unfriendly equipment. The short term visible costs include higher hydro bills. The longer-term benefits of green energy and the impact on climate change are unclear and are usually poorly presented, if at all. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “Why should we care about the future generations; after all, what have the future generations ever done for us?” People have no choice but to accept the costs of green energy and comply.

   2. The push for social diversity

Immigration from across the world continues a pace, changing the social fabric and the cultural norms. The benefits of social diversity are unclear and are usually poorly presented, if at all. The short term costs include a fear that the white working class, the major societal group that Trump targets and depends on, is becoming a minority. Jobs are being soaked up by immigrants. Children are not allowed to have Christmas at school, it’s just a holiday party. To paraphrase Donald Trump, “To hell with political correctness”. People have no choice but to accept the costs of social diversity and comply.

   3. The push for cheaper products

The benefits of cheaper imports are more and better products. But there are costs. Jobs are lost abroad and when jobs remain, robotics are replacing jobs with machines. As an example, when I grew up in the car industry in the UK, Jaguar Cars employed 12,000 workers. Today, I’m told that the new body assembly shop, the size of 5 football fields, employs 53 workers, most of whom are robotics engineers. While the shorter term benefits of cheaper products are visible, the longer term costs are unclear and are usually poorly presented, if at all. People have no choice but to accept the costs of cheaper products and comply.

…and compliance is getting worse, and not delivering the benefits

These are just examples and there are many more. The world we live in can be characterised by a good deal of change. The acronym VUCA is a US military acronym adopted by business strategy thinkers to describe situations they can find themselves in. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Confusion, Ambiguity. Many people today, including the white working class, find themselves in a VUCA situation, and nobody seems to listen or care. Addressing VUCA type situations like this takes thoughtful information sensing, skillful problem-solving and knowledge application, not skills that are readily available to most people. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is still sometimes the best one can do.

The old economy with its steady jobs and factories with old production technology is breaking down. We are moving into what is called the ‘precariat’ social class, defined by the temporary, insecure working conditions of the 21st century. Since the recession, wages haven’t kept up and the American dream, with its equality and opportunity for all, is not delivering the benefits. Those affected, or who can see the writing on the wall, are looking for someone to blame. Trump and Brexit gave them groups to blame. In the US it was immigrants, Muslims and the political establishment. In the UK it was immigrants, Cameron’s conservative government and the EU government in Brussels.

Different social groups and geographies provide different experiences for the individuals involved in this new social class affecting voting patterns. There is talk of the rise of white nationalists and of a ‘natural segregation’ of racial groups. Is the famous melting pot of the USA in danger of fragmenting or solidifying into separate groups?

We have certainly seen different voting patterns across different groups, for example, it was reported that if only millennials had voted in the US election, Hillary Clinton would have won in 48 states. In the UK, millennials as a group voted to remain in the EU.

Ironically, the economic numbers look good but the impact is different across different geographies, for example, the economic world looks very different in the mid-west than it does in California. In the UK, people in Northern England have very different living and working conditions than those in London. Northern England largely voted to leave while London voted to remain.

The communication media are also pushing us along

The communication media and information systems are also bringing changes that affect voting patterns. The Silicon Valley executives behind our information technology advances, value and promote the supremacy of the individual. As individuals, we want to make decisions and choices that affect us and those we love. We don’t want others to tell us what’s good for us. The role of authority and ‘the expert’ is changing. Through our new information technology, we decide what’s best for us based on our experience and the information we receive.

The information and channels we use to get the news to help us make those decisions is changing. The traditional mainstream media, television and newspapers, that Hillary Clinton relied upon, is the place for thoughtful deliberation and debate; but today this is not where people get their news. About 50% of people today get their news from Facebook. It’s widely reported that Facebook channels to individuals the news stories that generate the most revenues, whether fake or not, and before the election fake news was widespread and generated more revenues. The irony is that during the election the real news was as crazy as the fake news!

Facebook continues to take no responsibility for the news it delivers, claiming that it’s not a news organization but is simply a technology platform. How fake news affected the outcome of the election is being hotly debated, as is the importance of confirmation bias in received news from Facebook. Facebook does not use hyper-links; it’s a world of virtual reality, not a place for serious analysis and debate.

Rather than use main stream media, Trump relied on Twitter where his short messages were hard –hitting, punchy and easily circulated, but once again it’s not a medium for thoughtful debate. Twitter suited his purpose very well.

Eventually the worm turns!

The result is that people are disillusioned, angry and desperate. Even if they are not directly affected by layoffs and low salaries, they cannot see the opportunities and benefits ahead. They are afraid and anxious for themselves and their families. Those that have full-time jobs with benefits are hanging on to them. They have paid the price, they have complied, but have not seen the reward for doing so. In fact, many have simply been punished for non-compliance or told that they are responsible for their own situation because they didn’t get trained or changed fast enough to keep up. They want to make their own decisions but cannot.

People get the news that supports their biases, they seem to be rejecting the status quo and are turning away from experts, politicians and political parties, seen to be run by the wealthy establishment elite, and turning towards inspirational celebrity outsiders.

Into this situation comes outsider Trump (and the Brexiteers) with people to blame and simply communicated, easy, real-time answers.

We have settled for compliance in social change, rather than investing in commitment and that is coming back to bite us. We are now looking at the cost of having done so. Apparently, people voted for Trump for change rather than ‘more of the same’ from Clinton. Given my understanding of the situation in the US and UK, I don’t believe that people want more progressive change. They want change, but it’s in reverse. In fact they want to go back to the way it was. Trump’s appeal was to “Make America Great Again”. There’s a not-so-subtle theme here that appeals to the “Good Old Days” before VUCA, if they ever really existed!  I’m reminded of Anthony Newley’s musical of some years ago…’Stop The World – I Want To Get Off’. Stop. Enough already!

Trump’s appeal

Situations of VUCA and forced compliance leave us vulnerable to individuals who propose to cut through it all and provide some certainty and security. Trump’s appeal was that the central government is not acting in the people’s best interests and is totally corrupt. He indicated that he was the only one who understood and could fix this. He was the friend of the working class who would take on the establishment and put things right. The implication was that if he were given the power, he would make it happen quickly. It’s unclear whether he tapped into people’s fears and anxieties, or just knew how to fan the flames, but his strategy worked.

He even talked about reversing 25 of Obama’s executive decisions on his first day in office. It sounds good but from a change management point of view we know that it just can’t be done that quickly, but a strong, clear unambiguous message with a quick fix is very appealing to angry and desperate people in these circumstances. It makes ‘stronger together’, the democrat’s pitch, sound weak, indecisive and ineffective. His message certainly reached a lot of people who found it very attractive.

Reaching out to the angry and resentful, Trump successfully spoke to the heart. Clinton, with her focus on policy spoke to the head – to sense and to logic. The democrat executive seemed to fall in love with promoting the idea of a female in the White House and missed the point. Similarly, the UK ‘Brexiteers’ spoke to the heart, while the ‘Remainiacs’ spoke to the head. In both cases, the heart won.

…and a major change management weakness

The US Federal Government, its military mega-system and its links to the State governments and other counties, constitutes one of the most complex organizations on earth. There are so many co-dependencies, traditions, procedures and vested interests. It’s hard to even contemplate, let alone understand the implications of decisions and change from the top. Being parachuted in and making statements like ‘drain the swamp’ are easy to say but impossible to carry out quickly, effectively and successfully.

A major change management challenge for Trump is that he is taking on the whole system. Having worked in and with governments at all levels, I have learned two things. Firstly, government is not business. No one can come in and quickly wrench it around to make it behave like a market driven organization. Secondly, the people who run government at the appointed and elected levels are smart, professional and practiced in the art of manoeuvring to get things done…. or not. They know well how to deal with outsiders. Trump is out of his depth in a sea that they swim in every day. I see him as being vulnerable to being told what he wants to hear. I believe that the professionals will quickly squeeze the bluff and bluster out of him….or stall and wait him out. As change managers we know that rapid change in this environment is impractical, implausible and some might argue downright dangerous.

This situation reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s famous quote “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  Trump is the bearer of clear, simple answers to complex problems. History has classic examples of forceful individuals who come along claiming they are the only one who understands and can correct all the ills, and want the power to do so. It always ends in tears. 

What can we do to help?

   1. Keep building individual resilience

One thing we can do is to keep on coaching those we work with to increase their resilience to rapid and disruptive change. We need to en-courage their ability to cope with waves of change in a sea of uncertainty. The VUCA situation is here, the ‘precariat’ is coming and we all need to prepare for the new work world.  Those affected are not just the low income earners, many executive positions are contracted out today. For example, Mark Carney, the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England, is a contractor, as are many of us. Even if we have full time jobs, as Cliff Hakim wisely said ‘We are all self-employed.’ We know how to work in this world. All the best consultants that I have worked with have had a high tolerance for ambiguity and resilience. We are trained for this. We can pass it on.

   2. Manage social change to gain commitment – not just compliance

We can also raise the bar from our focus on the individual to managing social change. This means learning to apply what we know from our work at the team and organizational levels to the broader social level.

Using legislation to force change and then punishing people to force compliance just doesn’t create change that sticks. Getting change to be accepted and to stick requires commitment.

It’s sometimes good to remember that change management is expectations management. Perhaps we can help by focusing not so much on the change itself but on managing the expectations through the way it’s introduced.

Introducing social change involves future change. As change managers, we know that anticipated pain is the most difficult to manage, especially when it’s accompanied by immediate short term hits. We have to reward the losers but this rarely happens, at best they have been ignored and, at worst, punished for causing their own problems.

We know that all change includes both positives and negatives. One thing we can do to gain commitment is to not ignore the negatives but to embrace them. When introducing social change we need to have the courage to face the negatives, surface, recognise and openly discuss the pain, cost and frustration of the change, but then make sure that the case is made that the benefits are worth the cost. We must learn to level with people, be truthful, and not skip over or bury the negative consequences of a social change because of a fear that people will get upset. Winston Churchill was very good at delivering the negatives through his blood, sweat and tears messages, and they worked because his audience accepted that the positives he outlined were worth it, and outweighed the negatives.

But we have also learned that commitment is expensive and the question is always ‘How much commitment are you willing to pay for?’ There are strategies for compliance and strategies for commitment. Commitment is more expensive. I’m arguing that we too often settle for compliance because it’s quicker, easier and cheaper, but it may not be in the long run.

What this means for us

1. We must be aware of truth and bias in how we get news, particularly how we handle confirmation bias. Perhaps we will see a resurgence of the more traditional media that took real news for granted! The role of the media in this election will be studied for years.

2. Consider the questions that this social shift raises for change managers. For example, is this phenomenon telling us that there are limits to our love affair with novelty and innovation? Should we look past our Canadian smugness and consider the options; after the UK and the US, is Canada likely to go down this same path? If so, what new skills do we need to develop?

3. A member of our change management consulting community, Marti Smye, wrote an excellent book a while ago called “You Don’t Change a Company by Memo: The Simple Truths About Managing Change”. Someone should now write a book called “You Don’t Change a Country by Tweet”

4. Keep watching and learning. On sensing the general concerns about President-elect Trump, his supporters say that we should ‘give him the benefit of the doubt’. Does Donald Trump understand how to manage change? We must wait and see how he responds to a national shock, and then we’ll know how long ‘giving him the benefit of the doubt’ lasts?


Peter Lawton



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