Reassessing Resistance to Change


One of the most common misconceptions about change is that people are often unwilling.  I have worked with hundreds of middle managers and executives who express this sentiment.   There has also been a lot written about it – about how our employees fear change, are mistrusting of their bosses, unenthusiastic about having to learn new things – etc.

But there is another possibility to consider.    People aren’t stupid.  They know the world is dynamic and to avoid change can be perilous.  They ARE willing to change, and are in-fact eager for it.   If this could be true, why then do they so often act as if they are hesitant, even uncooperative and resistant?

Resistance to Change does not necessarily reflect opposition. Instead, many people are applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment.   So, what can look like resistance is often misinterpreted.

Here is a case in point.

I once served on an internal task force.  The problem was well-defined. The task force was suitably cross-functional. The members understood the task at hand.  There was a reasonable deadline.  We had followed all the requisite steps for setting up and empowering a committee.

As we talked about our problem, the majority of the group came to believe that what was needed was a new IT solution – a software application that would solve various communications issues, reduce processing time and so forth.   But one member of the team couldn’t see it and argued strongly against it.   She was from IT in this case, and as the rest of us became frustrated with her blocking actions, we came to view her as a close-minded, irrational person who was unwilling to see the obvious, and seemed to be opposed to change on principle.

A second member of our committee was drafted to participate, but he too was frustrating for the rest of us.   He never completed his interim assignments, spoke infrequently, and continually steered the discussion toward short-term “band-aid” solutions that would allow us all call it a day, and return to our normal jobs.   His unwillingness to engage was also frustrating since we all said we felt the problem we were assigned to solve was an important one, and yet he was lobbying against all solutions that would require a prolonged execution phase.  It made no sense to the rest of us.  Was he just lazy, did he not care, or was he happier with the status quo?

As both of these committee members seemed like they were “digging in their heels” I could sense the rest of us ALSO became less open-minded, less flexible, and less creative.   The committee dynamics took a dreadful turn for the worse.

After further discussions, our committee remained at an impasse, and we had to bring forward a far less than optimal proposal than the majority wanted.  I wasn’t particularly proud of our work, but it was the “best” we were able to do.

Sometime after the committee was disbanded, I had the chance to sit down one day with the IT committee member outside of work and what I learned was eye-opening to me.    It turns out that she saw the problem the same way we did all along, but before she was assigned to our task force her boss took her aside and said something like “as you sit down to review this problem, I want you to keep in mind how our [IT] staff is already so overburdened with work that we can’t keep up, and that our boss won’t allow us to add resources.   Accepting more obligations without a reasonable ability to deliver just makes us look ineffective to the rest of the organization and hurts us politically.  So no matter what your committee thinks, you MUST NOT allow the conversation to be steered toward a new software solution.”    Ah Hah, I thought.  Now it makes sense.

I had a similar conversation with the other frustrating member of our team, also outside of work.   “I’m not trying to accuse you of anything, I just want to understand.  Can you level with me,” I asked?  It turns out that he too had a story to tell.  Just before our committee assembled, he was given a performance review by his boss, and it wasn’t a positive one.  He was criticized harshly for being behind on several of his assigned projects, and was required to create a “personal improvement plan.”   “I thought he was building a case to fire me,” he told me.   Ah Ha!   Now that also began to make sense.  Every minute he sat in our committee meeting was taking him away from something else that he had to get right.

What can we do?

For the longest time in my life, when I encountered people who did not agree with me when I had been through an honest, thorough, and thoughtful analysis of a problem, I generally concluded they were either ignorant or corrupt!   It never occurred there could be a third explanation.

So this committee experience taught me that

1)       Few people are ignorant or truly corrupt.  (Our starting premise should always be that mostly we all get it, and want to do the right thing.)

2)       In our rush to get our assigned tasks addressed, we often blow right past the kind of personal interaction and understanding that we need to set the right foundation for successful interaction.   Before moving on to brainstorm our problem, we should have taken the time to get to know each other, and to ask what constraints each of us felt we were working under.  If our IT member, for example felt safe enough to have declared at the outset “I don’t think our IT department has the resources to pursue another major software initiative at this time,” we could have either gone to the executive who commissioned our committee and asked for his help, or we could have steered our brainstorming in a different direction.

3)       Investing some time and energy on the people side of the equation – while seemingly slower at first, can result is faster problem solving in the long-run.

4)       If people seem stupid and stubborn, there is often a LOGICAL explanation.  It is worth the effort to dig a little deeper.

I don’t know if you have encountered situations like this, but I still think these four points above are worth keeping in mind.

Other Resources:

The Real Reason People Won’t Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Harvard Business Review

When People Don’t Understand, Listen Better, by Marianne Powers, Doing the Right Thing

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