What AEW could learn from ADKAR

“Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture.” – Brittany Forsyth

Last month, I wrote an article where I addressed the potential for toxic positivity existing in AEW. I did not quite understand the extent of it until I watched the AEW All Out post show press conference on September 4. I came to the conclusion that it’s worse than I originally thought after listening to the comments of CM Punk, and then hearing that after the press conference there was a violent outbreak. 

On September 7, Tony Khan announced that the world title and the newly-minted trios titles were vacated. It was reported by Sports Illustrated that all parties involved in the alleged melee; including CM Punk, Kenny Omega, and both the Young Bucks; were suspended. Needless to say, AEW has a few problems.

The signs were always present. When AEW became a viable alternative to WWE and an attractive destination for wrestlers, for all praises that were sung for AEW, there were people in the background, like Brian Cage and Joey Janela, who, while they didn’t outwardly bash AEW, seemed to not be creatively fulfilled.

In business psychology, one of the tools taught to organizational leaders when things start to go awry is the Prosci ADKAR Model. It’s an important model to look at when the toxicity of an organization has spilled over into the public and is no longer simply an “in-house” issue. ADKAR uses five building blocks for successful change: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. 

ADKAR methodology is usually associated with managers, but it can be used to improve overall culture. In this article, I am going to go over each step in the process to examine AEW.

Awareness – of the need for change. The first major component to the Prosci ADKAR methodology is the understanding that changes in the organization have to happen. One can hardly watch the All Out press conference and assume anything other than AEW has issues. From my vantage point, it’s got more issues than a subscription to The New York Times. Their world champion CM Punk went on an expletive-filled rant about the EVPs of the company, Colt Cabana (referred to in the press conference by his real name, Scott Colton), and Hangman Adam Page. Punk said:

“It’s 2022! I haven’t been friends with this guy [Cabana] since at least 2014/late-2013, and the fact that I have to sit up here because we have irresponsible people who call themselves EVPs, and couldn’t fucking manage a Target, and they spread lies and bullshit and put [it out in the] media that I got somebody fired when I have fuck all to do with him, want nothing to do with him, do not care where he works, where he doesn’t work, where he eats, where he sleeps. And the fact that I have to get up here and do this in 2022 is fucking embarrassing.” 

He said all this while eating breakfast pastries.

The part I find the most amusing about this rant is Punk laments needing to “have to” talk about Cabana, when no one at this particularly press event asked Punk about Cabana. Punk interrupted before the first question of the scrum could be asked and went into his tirade. Anyway, I digress. 

Whether one likes Punk or not, this complaint speaks volumes to a management problem in AEW and there is at least one wrestler who is publicly implying that he has no respect for management. Khan needs to examine this thoroughly. Punk’s rant was unprofessional and wrong, but before we go blaming him and dubbing him the cancer in this situation, Khan needs to sit down with every single person on his roster to see who or what is the problem in this company and why it has gotten so bad that it has spilled over to the public. Prosci maintains that the ADKAR Methodology is based on the understanding that organizational change can only happen when individuals change. 

The question Khan has to ask himself is, “Did CM Punk join AEW and introduce this toxic behavior to the locker room?” or “Did this toxic behavior in the AEW locker room already exist and Punk just shined a light on it?”

From there, he can determine if the goals of people in the locker room are congruent with the organizational goals of AEW as a whole. If the individuals involved in the backstage altercation do not have goals that are aligned with the companies, this means that they are not a good fit for AEW, which brings me too…

Desire – to participate in and support change. This step is important in the ADKAR process because it gets rid of all of the bad apples that do not want to be there. For a lot of people, change is scary. The fear of change is why a lot of people stay in loveless marriages or jobs that they hate. Moreover, humans are wired to fear change. For the Bucks, Page, and Omega, they have been operating one way in AEW that they have been used to and were comfortable with. For Punk, he has made clear that there are certain individuals that he does not like. If all of these individuals are to maintain their influence in AEW they will need to have a desire to change and get over whatever egos that they may have. They will have to want to change.

Knowledge – on how to change. Outside of just AEW, I often wonder who wrestling companies defer to when talent is dealing with mental health issues. From a historical standpoint, while there have been successful wrestlers who have retired and have meaningful lives once their careers are done, there are plenty who have died early, get incarcerated, and seemingly do not know what to do once they are out of the limelight. I believe a lot of these issues come from the fact that wrestling is a bottom line business. Promoters pay close attention to who is drawing, who is selling merchandise, and what wrestlers have the highest ratings when they are on screen. It would behoove all wrestling companies to hire Industrial and Organizational Psychologists or I/O Psychologists. It’s the job of I/O psychologists to understand what is going on with individuals in the companies, through interviews, questionnaires, and observations. 

As soon as the All Out press conference ended, I started seeing memes across the internet of Khan looking confused and disheveled after Punk’s rant. What I found the saddest about all of this is, I seriously doubt that he saw it coming. To fully understand the knowledge milestone in ADKAR, Khan is going to have to hire people to do necessary research and actually get to know his talent, who will maintain the anonymity but will report common complaints.

Ability – to implement desired skills and behaviors. This milestone in the process comes when people in the organization have the ability to implement change once other steps have been completed. The toxicity that AEW is experiencing did not happen overnight. It didn’t even begin when CM Punk joined AEW or when Cody Rhodes quit AEW. The potential for this chaos in AEW existed the minute Khan came up with the idea of starting the company. Since AEW is still in its infancy, these negative behaviors are not yet baked in and can change if the individuals in the company want and desire change. 

Reinforcement – to sustain the change. Finally, the ADKAR methodology understands that it’s easy for an organization to jump back into bad habits. Some of these bad habits in wrestling have been going on for decades. There are plenty of wrestlers historically who have relished and even celebrated bad behavior. I do think that is starting to change, but old habits die hard. AEW needs to make clear to talent that these public call outs and people going into business for themselves in promos will not be tolerated by anyone.

Khan actually set a precedent against this by doing things like publicly tweeting why he got rid of Big Swole. He set the stage for “call out” culture where talent goes public rather than keeping discontent in-house. 

Conclusion

Somewhere along the way, Khan lost control and it resulted in a culture of disrespect among top talent in the company, which will continue to spill over to other talent if it’s not addressed. I believe that blame in this situation can be easily spread. I think Khan hired the EVPs because they could interact with other talent in a relatable way. 

I don’t think anyone in this situation has to be fired, including Punk. However, if this conflict results in litigation, then all bets are off. 

I don’t think the EVPs titles should take away because this is their first true test. I believe if they survive this, they will become better EVPs, as the mettle of management is tested in bad times, not good.


Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.