Thankfully, Roberts didn't lay out his personal rationale. So I don’t have the answer to that question. But I suspect that Charles Krauthammer’s thoughtful analysis was definitely a piece of Roberts’ thinking, though probably not the entire picture. Krauthammer argues that the reputation of the court was at stake. Although I’m not certain that Krauthammer is completely correct,this one thing I do know: making significant change is tough as nails. It’s so tough that most of the time we simply reject change when faced with that option.
Change is an issue that my businesses and my person have forced me to struggle with most of my life. If you’re in the organizational change business, you know that change fails more often than succeeds. And if, like me, you’re a coach who’s working with people who might be resistant to change, you recognize that what you’re doing may be a waste of time. The change ain’t going to happen very easily. (Thankfully, 95% of the folk who come to me today want to make a change and are merely asking for procedural help.)
Why is significant change so very difficult?
Historically we’ve answered that question by suggesting that we miss the big picture, that if something ain’t broke we don’t want to think about fixing it, or even that we’ve taken on outsized expectations. But over the past twenty years, researchers have dug into that question a bit deeper and come up with a far more useful answer to the problem. And it’s just been over the past few years that we’ve figured out how to deal with that research data.
The research finds that we think differently about an issue prior to making a decision than after making that decision. Prior to a decision about an important issue (“predecisional”), we explicitly spend our time analyzing options and alternatives. All the decisionmaking principles apply. However, once we’ve made a decision about an important issue, we stop the decision making processes. From that time forward (“postdecisional”), we focus on implementing our decision.
In other words, once we move from planning, deciding and goal-setting to the implementation of our plans, we “cross a metaphorical Rubicon.” We work to protect and foster those goals. You know the line: “I’ve made my decision. Don’t bother me with new information.” And so we build thick, nearly impenetrable walls, around our decisions. We are resistant to new information and resistant to change.
So how did Roberts make his decision?
I assume, based on his previous rulings, that Roberts’ conservative political and judicial walls are fairly thick. And initially, he may have been willing to work with his conservative colleagues. In short, initially he may have been fairly complacent about the decision.
But, and this is very important. The conversations surrounding the nature and practice of Court have become front and center over the past 10 years. Judicial complacency was no longer possible.
Complacency about any issue is built on the basis of historical success. If a person can think that he can succeed in the future on the same basis he has in the past, you can be certain there will be no change.
In the past, the Roberts Court had consistently found success by voting on a partisan basis, typically 5—4 on most decisions. However, over the past 10 or so years, the background conversations, especially as a result of the Bush/Gore decision and the Citizens-United decision had begun to challenge the reputation of the court. The conversations had switched from rulings to reputation. As Chief Justice, Roberts is responsible not only for managing decisions, but also for managing the long-term reputation of the court. In this instance, the reputational conversation had become so noisy, that I suspect he had to turn his focus to court reputation—and his legacy. Roberts has demonstrated political acumen that neither Scalia nor Alioto have in their toolkit.
Call it political. Call it bipartisan. Whatever. If Roberts intended to preserve the reputation of the court, it was a terrifically smart move. In any instance, he realized that complacency was no longer an option.
One of the most difficult issues change managers have to deal with is organizational complacency. There are a lot of ways of conversing about complacency. “Why mess with success?” “Don’t rock the boat.” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Etc., etc. Those are tough background conversations to change.
If we hope to be successful at change management, that will inevitably mean that we have to change those conversations. That will mean that we have to bring them into the foreground, examine them and shift the conversation. The only way, then, will be to reinvent new conversations. Reframe, reinterpret and interact with the world differently. I suspect that’s exactly what happened with Roberts. He found himself, because of all the noise about the Court, having to reframe the issue not as judicial. But as reputational. Ummm. A reminder. All decisions are political.
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