There is a model of change offered by a Swedish social psychologist, Claes Janssen*, which has always appealed to me, in part because it’s optimistic about the ability of people to change. It’s a simple model for visualizing where the potential energy is in a person, group, department or company – he calls it the “Four Room Apartment.”
Janssen says that each of us lives in a four-room apartment. We move from room to room depending on perceptions, feelings or aspirations triggered by external events. Someone who occupies a room today may, in a week, a month, or a year, have moved to another room of the apartment.
The four rooms Janssen describes are Contentment, Denial, Confusion and Renewal. Janssen says that as we change and develop as human beings, (and I would add as professionals) we continually circle through these four rooms.
In the Contentment room, we like the status quo. We are seen as and feel satisfied, calm and realistic. We are uninterested in attempting improvements or major changes – “If its not broke, don’t fix it.” But we can’t stay in contentment of course or we would never grow. As Sanford says, “Development occurs primarily in response to the challenges of life.” And no one gets through life without continually being presented with new, and often very difficult, challenges. A significant challenge - a merger, reorganization, new leader, new system, market crisis, job threat – can move us out of the Contentment room into the Denial room.
In a sense, people in the Denial room, already have the facts – that’s what they are in denial about. It’s the parent who finds herself still dealing with an adult son as though he were a teenager. Or the manager who, a year after his promotion to the new job, is fighting what everyone else already recognizes, that he has not made the switch from being an engineer to manager. They are, for their own reasons, not yet ready to deal with those facts. From the outside they are perceived as unaware or afraid of change.
When we are in the Denial room and finally acknowledges what we have been hiding from, that doesn’t solve our problem; it only moves us through the door into the Confusion room. Here we are seen as, and feel different, out of touch, scattered, and unsure. We muck about in the Confusion room, sorting out bits and pieces of our lives. Far from a state to be avoided Confusion signifies a readiness to learn. People in the Confusion room acknowledge they don’t have the answer. They have energy to spare; they just haven’t decided where to invest it.
We stay in Confusion until we own up to whatever fear or anxiety is keeping us from committing to the new. That moves us through the door to the Renewal room, and now we are perceived as, and feel, sincere, open, willing to risk. People in Renewal are trying out new practices and ideas. They are open to site visits to see what others have done and looking for articles about the latest innovation. The Renewal room feels like a place full of new converts, ready to put energy into a new path and wanting to convert others to the answer they’ve found.
But of course, over time Renewal subsides. We get comfortable with the new program, lifestyle, or relationship and we find ourselves back in the Contentment room. We have it “all worked out,” we have answers and we function comfortably within them; life is good.
Residing in any room is not a characteristic of a person’s personality; it is rather where they are at this time and in regard to this particular change. In time they will move because we all live in all four rooms.
As leaders or change agents, whose task it is to mobilize energy for a change, we need to work with people in the Confusion or Renewal rooms. In every Confusion room there are people already taking constructive action. They would welcome help to obtain needed resources or to coordinate activities with others. It is they who will carry the initiative forward – if they can be brought together to learn how their initiatives integrate with the whole. The seeds of success are sown in the Confusion room and sprout in the Renewal room.
The people in the Contentment or Denial rooms are not frozen, events will move them soon enough. But to mobilize change people in the Contentment or Denial rooms are not an effective place to spend a lot of energy or time. We need to continue to involve them in meetings with their colleagues, provide them information, but not to make them the focus of our efforts.
All of us need some part of our lives to remain stable especially when other parts feel
like they are in confusion. When professionals are dealing with personal problems like a divorce, birth of a new child, adjusting to a child leaving for college – or when they are dealing with work issues that are disorienting, being passed over for promotion, or failure of a project, they need stability in the other parts of their lives. And sometimes that stability is bought with denial. But when those troubling issues get resolved, then they have the energy to attend to what they had not seen before.
Weisbord writes about Janssen’ theory in Productive Workplaces. Jossey-Bass 1987