Tag Archives: resistance to Change

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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Why Is Change So Hard?

There is an old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  By that definition alone, it’s safe to assume the entire human race is a little bit crazy.  Let’s face it, human beings are pretty adept at falling into patterns of behavior that prevent them from authentic or meaningful change. How many people do you know whose behaviors or habits prevent them from changing—or in other words, prevent them from achieving different results? How about you? Is there something you or your organization seems to keep doing—because it can’t seem to change its behavior, habits, or actions?  Doesn’t it seem a little crazy not to change? If it does, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. Why? Because, change is hard. In fact, we humans have an excuse. We’re biologically conditioned to resist change, or more aptly, to resist being changed.  But, it is possible to change—if you have the tools, knowledge, incentive, and drive to do so.

The Science Behind Change

First we must understand why personal change is just so difficult in the first place. According to brain researcher and author of Personality, Decision, and Behavior, Gerhard Roth of the University of Bremen in Germany, “The brain is always trying to automate things and to create habits, which it imbues with feelings of pleasure. Holding to the tried and true gives us a feeling of security, safety, and competence while at the same time reducing our fear of the future and of failure.”[i] Seems to make sense doesn’t it? Habits make us feel secure, safe, and competent. If we feel this way, we are less likely to fail, to mess up, to challenge ourselves or others. Who doesn’t want to feel comfortable? Who wants to fail? Not many us.

However, that’s precisely what we need to do.

Sometimes we get too comfortable. We stay on safe ground, because we don’t know what to expect around the next corner or over the horizon. But, what if around that corner there was a chance for greater success, better opportunities, and more promising possibilities—whether it’s higher profits, innovative systems or products, or just greater influence?  Or what if by not changing we actually risk harming ourselves or our organization? Failing to see over the horizon or at least be willing to peek around that corner can leave our businesses on shaky ground, if not completely obsolete.

For example, look what happens if we fail to change quickly enough? Sometimes another an innovative entrepreneur may emerge who really changes the landscape. Remember the time (before Howard Schultz) when someone told us that we’d eventually be paying $2 for a cup of coffee? Seemed crazy then, right? Today, we have trouble buying a Starbucks coffee with just $2 in our pocket. When McDonald’s first came on the scene, many were skeptical as well. “Fast food? Why would anyone want fast food? What about good food?” Eventually people caught on. As the industry changed, people’s desires and expectations changed, too. Amazing, right?

So where do we begin? With ourselves, of course. How many of us have daily habits that harm us as individuals, whether it is lack of sleep and exercise or too much food and television? Imagine if we could just stop one of those habits and replace it with new a one that could drive change—and achieve better results? (Like reading instead of watching television or exercising first thing in the morning and going to bed earlier instead of maintaining irregular sleep.)

Now what if we changed the way we worked as an organization? What if we could reimagine our strategy or mission?  Our management style? Our products and systems? We’ll never know if we don’t change course, take a new route, and see what’s around that corner.

Some Tips for How to Implement and Drive Change

Okay, so we already know change is hard, and we also know it’s good for us. So just when and how do we implement change? Here are eight steps to making meaningful and sustainable change:

Step 1: Think about the main threats to your organization. Your environment is constantly shifting. Technology, social trends, global economic forces, customer needs, and other environmental factors are in constant flux. Failing to react to these (when your competitors are) can be life threatening for your business. So start by making a list of drivers—some of which are making things worse, and others are likely to become more important over time.

Step 2: Look outside your organization. The biggest mistake we all make is to assume we know what matters. We are, after all experts in our business. It is healthier to think about your knowledge as being flawed, and based on past experiences. Accept that the future will not necessarily be like the past, so we must always challenge our ways of thinking and how we see the world. Go out into it with fresh eyes. Talk to a customer. Visit a competitor (or do research on them). Visit other companies (even outside your industry) who are really good at something you feel could be strategically important to you (like quality, innovation, cost improvement, or customer service). Talk about what you learned. Talk about why you can’t be more like Google, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Virgin Atlantic or whomever you admire.

Step 3: Develop your Change Agenda. Make a list of change imperatives for your organization based on what you learned from steps 1 and 2. Put them in priority order. Rank them in terms of how important they are and also on how hard they will be. Select the impactful, easy ones first–win often and celebrate your victories along the way.

Step 4: Plan for the Change. Change initiatives take time and resources. A common misstep is to push your change agenda without providing the money, time, and other resources your team needs to do it well. This can become frustrating and even demoralizing. In some cases, it may be best to realign your priorities delaying other programs in favor of these.

Step 5: Identify obstacles.  Then decide which ones are real or imagined, which ones you can work around, and which ones you will have to confront head-on. Do not use obstacles as excuses not to change. Instead, see obstacles as opportunities for growth. By facing obstacles, you will naturally have to exercise personal skills like flexibility and adaptability—both requirements for effective change.

Step 6:  Do the workChange requires dedication and hard work. To break habits, you have to create new ones. You need to be consistent and unyielding. However, if you do fail, or hit obstacles, continue on. You’ll find that once you are open to change—you’re more likely to change behaviors to adapt as more obstacles come your way.

Step 7: Evaluate your change. Did the change improve a process? Did the change improve you? Is there more work to be done?

Step 8: Change something else. Change has to be an ongoing practice and approach—throughout your entire life and the life of your organization. Once you apply the skills to cope and adapt to change, you will find change isn’t so scary after all. So move on to the next thing—and keep changing.

We have helped many clients with their change initiatives.  Call us today to talk with us about how we can help you accelerate your change program.


Additional Resources

A great resource and study in how to use crisis to inspire and implement change:



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