What a 115-year-old college newspaper can teach you about leading change


There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to lead, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

– Niccolo Machiavelli

Can a 115 year old dog learn new tricks?

In April 1906, neurologist Morton Prince published the first issue of Journal of Abnormal Psychology. At the time, modern psychology was still emerging as a credible science. Prince’s periodical quickly became the leading journal for advancing the study of psychopathology.

The title of the journal reflected the thinking of the era in which it was born. For Prince and his peers, “abnormal” simply meant something outside of the norm. Strictly speaking, this is what the content of the journal was about.

However, simple definitions are not always that simple. Content cannot exist separately from the context in which it lives. The word “abnormal” has developed more and more negative connotations over time. As Professor Angus MacDonald III, current editor of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, has said, “names matter.”

MacDonald said, “Intentionally or not, names make it easier to activate other ideas and concepts that we store. Whatever the original momentum, there was a tension implicit in the title Journal of Abnormal Psychology which required addressing. Our title contributed to the stigmatization of people with mental illness. It’s already a pretty serious struggle that they have. We are a journal that should help people with mental illness, not contribute to this stigma. Changing the name was an idea whose time had come.

In January 2021, the American Psychological Association announced a new title for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Beginning with the January 2022 issue, the journal will be known as Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science.

This name change was a process, not an event. MacDonald, even as editor, couldn’t make the decision unilaterally. Many stages and stakeholders were involved. MacDonald’s five-step process for leading that change is a valuable case study for any leader who wants to lead organizational change.

Step one: create dissatisfaction with the status quo

MacDonald admitted, “I have to admit that I was not at the forefront of this change. By my personality I’m the type of person who says, ‘Is this good enough? Can we get away with this? The name didn’t bother me.

“To be honest, it all started with an unfortunate email I received. It read: “I was very disappointed with your interview when you did not say that you were going to change the name of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. ‘ My first reaction was “You have a lot of nerve! The title is only a nomenclature. This is the name of the field.

The thorny tone of the email penetrated MacDonald’s skin. He started to think of the name more frequently. Suddenly other comments started to stand out, like the colleague who said, “I postponed the abnormal psychology class in college until my senior year because the name scared me.” MacDonald realized that while he wasn’t personally bothered by the name, others were. Maybe it wasn’t fair nomenclature after all.

Second step : Building a coalition

MacDonald needed to test the hypothesis that was gnawing at his guts. He explained, “At breakfast with my editorial team (a small group that helps make decisions about articles), I pitched the idea of ​​changing the name. An editor, who grew up in Germany, said: “We would never give that name to a magazine in Germany. He has too many associations with eugenics and the Nazi era. ‘ The consensus around the table was that something had to be done about the name. It was the moment that started the ball rolling. “

Third step: register decision-makers by appealing to shared values

MacDonald does not own the newspaper. It is owned and published by the American Psychological Association (APA). MacDonald had to ask the APA Communications Council to make the change. The APA asked, “How do you want to change it? “

MacDonald replied, “I don’t have a name yet. It’s not a horse race between two names, and which one is better. It’s about agreeing that we need to start a process to come up with a new and better name. The current name contributes to the stigma. We have to change it.

The APA agreed. The search for a new name was launched.

Fourth step: involve all stakeholders

MacDonald was nervous. The APA had given him the green light: he didn’t want to ruin everything. MacDonald felt he needed to involve his largest group of stakeholders: the top 100 academics who make up the journal’s editorial board who provide crucial input to journal articles.

MacDonald announced the name change initiative on this board, and the immediate response was overwhelmingly positive. He asked for suggestions for a title. As he described it, “I wanted to create a culture where people felt like we were doing this together.”

MacDonald received over fifty suggestions for new names and, with the help of the editorial team, narrowed it down to the top three picks. MacDonald presented the three options to the APA, along with his thoughts on the pros and cons of each. The APA ultimately picked the title that had been MacDonald’s first choice.

Fifth step: Anticipate and communicate

Change has consequences. Good leaders consider these consequences in advance. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology has built a solid brand reputation over its 115-year history. A sudden change to a new name could put that brand at risk.

To ensure the change was successful, MacDonald identified key questions that needed to be answered:

  • How would the editorial board and team stay informed and engaged?
  • What would be the impact on university libraries, our biggest customer?
  • How do you make academics know that the journal did not disappear in battle?

To answer these questions, MacDonald launched a multi-month communications campaign to draw attention to the official APA name change event on January 13.e. Although the new name was announced in January 2021, it will not officially come into effect until January 2022. This year will be a year of transition, where both titles will appear on the cover. This will socialize the new name in the minds of their audience. As MacDonald described it, “You don’t turn around on a 115 year old steamboat. We had to navigate smoothly. And it takes time.

I can’t say if things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they have to change if they want to improve.

– Georg C. Lichtenburg

Change is difficult.

Change involves creating a vision, understanding human psychology and behavior, navigating the complexity and executing a strategy Leading change is especially difficult if you don’t have a clear process for guide you. Consider adapting this 5-step process to help you implement your change initiative. After all, if a 115-year-old can do it, so can you.


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