Living through organisational change: a time of fear or celebration?

Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559 (oil on oak panel), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-69) © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria / Bridgeman Images

The Fight between Carnival and Lent

Bruegel’s painting, from 1559, represents the opposing forces of carnival and Lent. On the one hand this can be viewed as moral fable, a conflict between indulgence – represented by the inn, and restraint and reflective devotion – represented by the church. However, it can also be read as an expression of social and political tensions, with carnival representing a temporary freedom from the social bonds imposed, above all, by the church.

Change management as fear and control

Two words feature heavily in the change management literature: fear and control. Employees are characterised as fearful of change, and management is therefore required in order to control the change process. The discipline of change management, following the approaches set out by Lewin and Kotter, has tended to present change as an interlude between stable states, where change management is required to steer an organisation through the disruption of change towards the establishment of future stability. More recently, however, writers have emphasised the ongoing nature of change, highlighting the “complex, emotive and fluid character of organisational ‘changing’” (Badham Badham and Garrety, 2003). Change is therefore a constant concern, rather than an interlude. It is now also generally accepted that substantive, lasting change needs to address culture, with the problem of cultural change central to the process of change.

The focus on fear as a key reaction to change by employees stretches back to Lewin, and is still current. For example, the APMG Effective Change Managers Handbook highlights psychological theories of change. Reaction to change is viewed as an overwhelmingly negative and psychological state. The focus is on employees as the subjects/victims of change, with management as the agents/perpetrators of change, with the latter very much in control of the process.

In my experience of change initiatives, however, this characterisation of change is often incomplete or misleading. For employees, the fear of change often coexists with a sense of excitement, an opening up of possibilities. Moreover, the fear of change is not necessarily felt most by employees but by managers, where changes to existing power structures, and the disruption to those structures during the period of change, are a real threat to their status.

Although the practice of change management focuses on control, established forms of control are, of necessity, relinquished during the change process to allow for new forms to be instituted. This void in control is characterised as a key time of fear and uncertainty, with the process of change management itself expected to step in to maintain control and minimise uncertainty.

The void as carnival

In this essay, rather than characterising this central phase in the change process as a time of fear and uncertainty, I argue that it can be a time of spontaneity, creativity, and liberation from existing power relationships and routines – a brief period when the organisational world is ‘turned upside-down.’ I believe that the concept of carnival, as presented by Bakhtin, is an appropriate metaphor for this phenomenon.

Carnival presents itself as the upending of reality, but its real role is to temporarily lay bare the falsity of a world of single, simple truths. We are always, at some level, aware of the contradictions at the heart of our social and organisational structures, but we also recognise that they cannot function without the stability of established social relations. Without such social structures, decision-making becomes tortuous, and concerted communal action is hardly possible. Carnival allows us to acknowledge the absurdity and contradictions of a world of order, restraint, and hierarchy by celebrating freedom, equality, and excess. I argue that the spirit of carnival is unleashed in organisations undergoing change. Rather than equating change with fear and apprehension, as in the orthodox view presented by Lewin and Kotter, the void in control experienced during organisational change can offer opportunities to challenge the status quo. This is no bad thing, as it allows orthodoxies to be questioned and new ways of being to be explored. It also resets interpersonal relationships, however temporarily, allowing individuals to detach themselves from their established organisational roles. Moreover, I argue that the fear of change can actually be greatest for those in positions of power – managers and middle managers – than for employees. Change threatens existing power structures, exposing those at the top to a scrutiny that can be uncomfortable. Of course, context is key. Where jobs are scarce, or employees lack transferable skills, the prospect of redundancy can be terrifying: yet for well-educated younger workers in a buoyant job market, organisational change may be much more opportunity than threat.

Mikhail Bakhtin and his world

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a literary theorist and philosopher of language. Although his interests and knowledge reflected the concerns of the internationally aware Russian bourgeoisie of his childhood, his life was shaped by the upheavals of Soviet Russia, where having the wrong family background or expressing unorthodox opinions could lead to ostracism, exile, forced labour and death. Bakhtin’s work was scarcely published under his own name in the Soviet Union, with some works printed under the names of other writers. However, despite spells in internal exile, and long-standing health issues, various provincial administration and teaching jobs presented him with the opportunity to develop his ideas. Over his long and wide-ranging intellectual career, Bakhtin presented a number of ideas and concepts that have resonated with scholars in a range of disciplines, including literary criticism, the philosophy of language, and organisational theory. Chief amongst these ideas are the dialogical nature of language, and the polyphonic nature of social relations.

Hazen (1993) notes that Bakhtin considers that at the heart of language are dialogical relationships between different voices, where ‘reality’ can only fully reside in social interactions expressed in language. Dialogue is, for Bakhtin, not the threshold to, or a commentary upon, action in the world, but itself the heart of that action. Dialogue does not expose the already formed character of individuals, but serves to create them (echoing Berger and Luckmann, Derrida and Foucault). To exist means to communicate dialogically: when the dialogue is finished, all is finished (Bakhtin, 1973, p. 213, cited in Hazen, 1993, 20). Bakhtin presents the concept of the utterance as the basic building-block of this dialogue, where each utterance necessarily holds a unique meaning owing to its unique context in space and time (Medvedev and Bakhtin, 1978, p. xiii, cited in Hazen, 1993, 20). First developed in his writing on Dostoevky’s novels, Bakhtin presents the concept of polyphony, describing the social world dynamically constructed from multiple interacting narratives, where multiple voices do not combine into one, but rather maintain their distinct character.

Rabelais and his world

Bakhtin opens his treatise on the French medieval writer Rabelais with the bold assertion that, “Of all great writers of world literature, Rabelais is the least popular, the least understood and appreciated.” The roots of this lack of understanding lie in, Bakhtin claims, the subsequent marginalisation of the medieval world that Rabelais presents. At the heart of Rabelais’ world, for Bakhtin, is the idea of carnival (Bakhtin, Rabelais, 1).

Bakhtin defines carnival as the sum total of “all diverse festivities, rituals and forms of a carnival type,” with deep roots in the “primordial order and the primordial thinking of man” (Bakhtin, Dostoevsky, 122).

“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalistic life. Because carnivalistic life is life drawn out of its usual rut, it is to some extent ‘life turned inside out’” (Dostoevsky, 123).

Carnival acknowledges no distinction between actors and spectators. It is not a spectacle to be seen by the people, rather they are a part of it, because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival, life is subject only to its laws, or rather its freedom from laws (Rabelais, 7). As opposed to official feasts sanctioned by state or religion, carnival celebrates a temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order, marking the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions (Rabelais, 10). Carnival is the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal, hostile to all that is immortalised and completed.

The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of particular significance. Rank was especially evident during official feasts; everyone was expected to appear in the full regalia of his rank, and to take the place corresponding to his position. Official feasts were therefore a consecration of inequality. During carnival, however, all were considered equal where, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age (Rabelais, 10). Bakhtin emphasises that the hierarchical divisions of the medieval social order were exceptionally strong. Therefore, the temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in everyday life.

Bakhtin emphasises that carnival “must not be confused with mere holiday…carnival derives ultimately not from a calendar prescribed by church or state, but from a force that preexists priests and kings and to whose superior power they are actually deferring when they appear to be licensing carnival” (Rabelais, xviii). Bakhtin is clear that the relationship between the medieval “church/state nexus” and the carnival was a very real power struggle (Rabelais, xxi).

Carnival and organisation

Writers on organisations have tended to focus on some of Bakhtin’s other ideas, such as dialogical discourse and polyphony. Ramsey (2008) notes that Bakhtin’s contextualisation of polyphony within carnival is a reading of his work that is largely missing from the organisational literature. Slutskaya and De Cock (2008) identify carnival as a touchstone for a variety of hotly debated topics around organisations, such as subversion, transgression and popular resistance to authority. They identify three main carnivalesque themes in organisation studies: resistance (the tumultuous crowd), hierarchy (the world turned upside-down) and popular culture (the comic mask), where the carnival metaphor allows researchers to look into issues of power, hierarchy and order.

Hazen (1993) argues that a carnival attitude liberates bureaucracy. She notes that postmodern theorists embrace carnival as they “de-differentiate, refuse to categorise, listen to many discourses and voices, and defy polarities.” “When the centre of authority is in the voice of each person, the hierarchical pyramid collapses into a circle of sound. When we dialogue with one another, the bureaucratic monologue is drowned out by the humming of a living group of people organized to do their work” (Hazen, 23). She argues that this can lead us to different ways of understanding change in organisations from the more traditional approaches such as unfreezing-refreezing and force field analysis. Spectacle and the resistance to corporate hegemony in the form of theatrical parody or carnivalesque have been identified in a variety of institutional contexts (Boje, 2001). Boje, Rosile, Durant and Luhman (2004), in a study of narratives of the Enron scandal, argue that corporate power in that case seemed to be linked with the logic of heroic storytelling and resistance linked with the logic of carnival.

Vaara and Pedersen (2013) reference another concept from Bakhtin in the form of the chronotype – differing conceptions of time and place experienced and presented by actors. For example, a company’s strategy can be described in ‘everyday time’ by referring to the real life actions of the CEO. In such narratives, ‘the road’ is a frequent chronotope, allowing one to envision strategy as a trajectory of one person’s actions. ‘Rabelaisian time’, on the other hand, can provide a basis for constructions of strategy that emphasise the collective, open, roleplaying and participative aspects of strategising. This can, for example, involve references to collective experiences such as the Christmas party or away days.

Although carnival and resistance are not synonymous, the theme of resistance in organisational life has attracted considerable interest from scholars. Ybema et al. (2016) note how change management tends to frame resistance as a typical, yet dysfunctional, reaction to change, a reaction that needs to be ‘corrected’ by appropriate management actions. However, they also note that more recently some change management scholars have embraced a more positive framing of resistance by viewing it as an opportunity to generate ‘conversations’ about change by involving employees, although ultimately with the aim of securing support for change. Critical scholars challenge such views of resistance as pandering to a managerialist agenda. Instead, they conceptualise resistance as legitimate attempts by employees to assert their rights. Ybema et al. (2016), placing identity at the heart of their analysis, present change, resistance and identity as intricately and dynamically connected. They argue that psychologising the ‘other’ by assuming that change recipients suffer from fear and conservatism is a typical change management approach, one that reframes substantive concerns and critique as mental deficiencies. Vaara and Rantakari (2019), framing strategy as carnival, present an analysis focused on polyphony in strategy-making, showing how, in a Nordic city organization, strategy-making evolved in a dynamic of centering and decentering of meaning. They analyse how these episodes were ‘orchestrated’ by three sets of practices: managing discursive spaces (allowing polyphony to happen by opening and closing), editing of the narrative representations (leading to control of meaning), and managing the rules of the game (impacting shifts and moves between discursive spaces and editing and the temporality of the process).

The relevance of carnival for organisational change

Bakhtin pointed to the decline of the medieval carnival in Seventeenth Century Europe, with communal life increasingly brought into individual households. However, carnival persists in many forms around the world, notably with Mardi Gras, a celebration reflecting many of the characteristics that Bakhtin identified, including a social levelling, carnival kings and queens. Less obviously, I argue that the Internet has opened up virtual public spaces, where a polyphony of voices seek to challenge what they perceive as established social structures, creating new and subversive means of expression.

Indeed, I do not think that we are all that far away from the medieval world of Rabelais. It is clear that Foucault’s vision of the panopticon of control, made possible by industrialisation, has never allowed the powerful to entirely extinguish resistance to the established order. Organisations attempt to impose order and control, enforcing one ‘true’ vision that employees are expected to adopt. However, the systems of control established by organisations are at least as ludicrous as those of the medieval world, and equally open to ridicule. Although we still recognise the necessity of hierarchy and rules, we are fully aware that they are arbitrary, based upon a dubious rationality, and fundamentally unfair.

What then, are the implications for change practitioners? Rather than assuming fear and negativity, I believe that they need to be open to the positive and creative forces unleashed during episodes of change. Yes, these forces may well also be subversive and challenging, but, as I have argued here, carnival is not simply resistance or chaos. It is not fundamentally a rejection of power and social order but a space outside of it that, I believe, can be harnessed to help to deliver change that has broad acceptance from employees, rather than regarded as imposed from above. I have argued that Bakhtin’s vision of carnival has relevance for contemporary society and organisations. It reminds us that the established social order is not opaque to those labouring within it, but that employees are acutely aware of the arbitrary and unfair nature of power at the same time as accepting its necessity. Opportunities to upend the established order, even temporarily, as in away days or Christmas parties, are gleefully taken. Organisational change is another such opportunity. Rather than characterising reactions to change as dominated by fear, or by resistance (either dysfunctional or rational), we can also see in them the creative possibilities of the carnivalistic tradition.


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