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The Red Queen Hypothesis

Management Perspective

Red Queen Hypothesis

The Red Queen Hypothesis

By Michael Morand, CPIM-F, CSCP-F, CLTD-F

The Red Queen is a fictional character from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the book, the Red Queen explains to Alice that her world works differently: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

The Red Queen hypothesis was coined in evolutionary biology to explain that a species must adapt and evolve not just for reproductive advantage, but also for survival because competing organisms also are evolving. It’s important to note that competing organisms can be friendly — for instance, those that rely on the same food sources.

Applied to our careers, we might think about adaptation and evolution as embracing change and pursuing continuous learning and development. In this realm, the imperative to evolve comes not from aspirational pursuits, such as a promotion, but from the need to continue providing value in an environment where even “running our fastest” might not be enough.

So, what’s keeping us from running faster, and, perhaps more importantly, why are managers sometimes ineffective at encouraging others to do so?


Adapting and evolving as a management practice can be remarkably difficult. To overcome the inherent challenges, we must keep in mind that change typically involves more than a documented update to an associate’s responsibilities and an expectation to reshape interactions with others. Rather, change can affect a person’s sense of value or belonging.

Change management often is taught through a commitment curve. The curve explains the stages of personal transition as an individual’s support of an organizational change increases over time and with exposure. The curve implies that a manager should identify an individual’s current stage and provide the requisite information to help this person reach the next level.

While the commitment curve might explain the markers and milestones of change management, it doesn’t provide much insight into the nuances of resistance, and managers should be cautious not to oversimplify this effort or underestimate its significance. For a more complete understanding of the factors associated with resistance, Shaul Oreg’s “Resistance to Change” in the 2003 Journal of Applied Psychology explains the common manifestations, which include

  • reluctance to lose control
  • an unwillingness to think differently
  • lack of psychological resilience when coping with change
  • intolerance of the adjustment period involved in change
  • a tendency to perform poorly outside the familiar framework
  • reluctance to give up old habits.

The central challenge for managers is how to encourage change, continuous learning and development. Given that shifting environments are uncertain by design — and associates are likely trying to understand how to make sense of these scenarios — it follows that individuals struggle with the idea of knowing if and how their actions will lead to successful outcomes.

Mangers can help by sending clear signals that change is desirable, creativity is encouraged and failures are acceptable. It is imperative to understand the norms that the team has grown accustomed to within the organization and if any course-correction or compensation are needed to ensure the right actions are being shared and reinforced.

Managers also must account for the context not only at the individual and team levels, but also at the broader departmental or organizational levels. There may be a general willingness of an individual to embrace change and express creativity. But if there is a distinguished resistance to change in the team or broader organization, this will limit the amount of change that can be driven or supported by that person.

Finally, as managers, we often see the need to run more clearly than the people we lead. Therefore, it is our responsibility to lead by example, help our associates overcome their personal resistance to change and to start running twice as fast.

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