Tim Leberecht

The Romance of Work

Why Romance Is the Key to Managing Change

Rational arguments and comfort only go so far.

Posted Jul 16, 2019

Cynthia del Rio/Unsplash
Source: Cynthia del Rio/Unsplash

I was recently invited by a tech conference in Europe to give a talk about the holy grail of digital transformation: how to change. That is, how to motivate employees to adapt to disruptive technologies and business models and truly embrace the new and unknown.

I began by debunking two stubborn myths:

The two myths of change

First, change is rational and driven by a rationale. If we can just convince our people with sound arguments and proper data, then they will follow and commit to the new way of being.

Second, the change should be made as easy and convenient as possible for people, so that they are not scared away, but will embrace it.

Both assumptions are wrong, in my opinion. In my work as a chief marketing officer who had to oversee several large-scale transformation initiatives, and as a consultant and coach who helps organizations and individuals transform, I have come to realize that effective change is neither inspired by rational arguments nor embraced as the path of least resistance and most comfort.

Quite the opposite is true: Change involves an emotional, often even irrational, experience triggered by sensory stimuli, introspection, and a profound desire for personal growth, for recognizing ourselves in the context of something greater than ourselves. It also normally involves a little bit of suffering: the letting go of a previous version of ourselves, of a nostalgic attachment to the status quo.

In order for change to be effective, we have to make space for what’s to come and get rid of what has been. We must kindle for others and ourselves the desire to smell, taste, and touch the new, not because it is better, but because it is new.

There is a word for this kind of desire: romance.

Romance is not about "love what you do"

By romance, I’m not referring to the pop-cultural meaning of the term, but to the arts and philosophical movement of the 18th and 19th century. Two hundred years ago, the Romantic movement revolted against the regime of enlightened reason and scientific rationality, because it felt that the view of humans as purely rational beings was too narrow for grasping the complex and elusive human soul. Instead, the Romantic philosophers and artists espoused virtues such as subjectivity, emotion, mystery, and ambiguity.

I believe we need a new Romantic movement today, especially in business—this time in response to the disenchantment caused by the data-fication, quantification, and automation of everything. Romance is what makes us human, and it is what makes us strive to be more than just a financial success, a productive employee, or a good citizen.

To be clear, romance is not about “love what you do” or “love your customer”—rather, it is about “having your heart in it” and allowing it to be broken, as the poet David Whyte would say. It is about understanding companies and our role in them as one big social experiment, a learning journey with an open ending, a powerful vehicle for uncovering some deeper meaning about the world and our true place in it.

This uncovering is more likely to occur in moments of change, which are always moments of crisis. In those moments, we (re)connect to the essence of things, to what actually matters, to who we truly are and are becoming.

Let’s not forget that it was the desire for change, which made all of us join our organizations in the first place. It’s a desire for stories, experiences, or even just small moments that are true—or so beautiful that we want them to be true.

Beauty eats efficiency for breakfast

An organization that is all about efficiency is not a human organization. A leader who cites efficiency gains as the main reason for a change may convince some but inspire no one.

Change is messy and elusive, and it requires deep inner work, not just the cognitive adoption of new paradigms, tools, and processes. It is indeed a romantic endeavor: When we drive change, we change someone else’s reality and our own, moving from one world and one identity to another.

Any successful recent change initiative I can think of has been fueled by romance: Danone under Emmanuel Faber, Microsoft under Satya Nadella, Xerox under Anne M. Mulcahy, or Progressive under Tricia Griffith. These CEOs have two key qualities in common: They can envision the future, and they inspire us to want it, with all the talent and passion we can muster.

Allowing our organizations, their leaders, and ourselves to be romantic—that is the kind of change we really need.