The Law of the Boomerang Effect

Ichak Adizes once wrote, “It is difficult to change organizations. It is like tending the gardens. When you relax, the culture goes back to the weeds.” That statement describes what Hans Finzel calls “The Law of the Boomerang Effect.”  It’s the idea that everything tends to revert back to the old way…systems, habits, and people. The status quo is what the boomerang of change so often returns to. 

Why does this happen? One reason is, as Harvard author and professor John Kotter observes, that the change is not anchored in the organization’s culture. And because leaders and followers are organizational culture creators, understanding where each person is in relation to change is important. Hans Finzel’s captures this reality best when he writes about the “Eight Levels of the Boomerang Effect” in his book, Change is Like a Slinky. Finzel’s eight levels include:

1.  Ritualist – “Whatever. I am not really here in spirit anyway. Just in body, so let them do what they want.”

2.  Retreatist – “I will do what I can to prove that they are wrong with quiet resistance.” This is the passive-aggressive employee.

3.  Rebel – “I will actively do what I can to prove that they are wrong with aggressive sabotage.”

4.  Conformer – The compliant one. “I will do whatever I am told. Never rock the boat.”

5.  Complainer – “Those people in management are nuts! I will let them know it at every turn.”

6.  Early Adopter – “I see what they are proposing and it makes sense. I will push the boomerang in the right direction and try to keep it from going back home.”

7.  Late Bloomers – Those who eventually come along when they have warmed up to the new ideas and had their minds and hearts convinced. They are from Missouri: “Show me.”

8.  Innovator – Those wonderful people who say, “I can improve what they are talking about and make it even better. I’ll help throw the boomerang!”

Understanding where everybody on your team is will help you immediately get a feel for receptivity to your next change effort. You’ll know who will be with you early on, who you  need to meet with one-on-one before making any kind of big announcement, who needs time to process ideas, and who will likely be the last to get on board. This is valuable insight to have when going into a change initiative. Ignore it at your own peril.

Question: Where do members of your team fall in the eight levels of the boomerang effect. What do you have to do to make sure your next change initiative doesn’t boomerang back to the status quo?