Many words have been written on the subject of 'overcoming' and ‘dealing with' resistance to change. Much of the literature takes the view that change is good and resistance to change is bad (Huy and Mintzberg, 2003), with those who resist change being described in a way that suggests they are self-serving or dysfunctional (Huy at al, 2014).
But perhaps we should take a different perspective on resistance to change?
Rather than treating it as a problem to be solved (by fair means or foul), maybe we should instead welcome it as a blessing in disguise? Perhaps those who are brave enough to speak up and challenge the groupthink should be respected and listened to rather than being manipulated or ignored?
In this article I want to argue that resistance to change is a useful - sometimes essential - part of achieving the best possible outcomes for an organisation.
Useful because the challenges being levelled against the change are a fantastic opportunity to further inform and validate what is being proposed, both in terms of the change outcome and in terms of the approach to implementation. Only when all possible inputs are received into the change process can you be confident that the best outcomes will be achieved; and that is what resistance to change really is - a part of all the required inputs. Articles on change management often assume that arguments being presented against change are driven by self-interest or emotion rather than the broader interests of the organisation and those that it serves. But to assume that someone else’s argument is invalid is both risky and hubristic. What if the arguments against the change are driven in greater measure by the interest of the organisation than the arguments of those proposing the change? What if the people proposing the change are less well informed, less well connected to customers, and more self-serving than ‘the resistance’? That must happen sometimes. Eg if someone is paid to only do change then they will only do change. If a consultancy only gets paid if it delivers the change project then it will do everything it can to deliver the change project - including ‘overcoming’ resistance by whatever means possible. A typical list of the reasons why people resist change includes them being invested in the current ways of working; the possibility of doing more, less, different, or no work; a fear of working relationships being lost; resistance as an emotional (in this case a euphemism for ‘irrational’) response; and, peer group pressure. Huy (2014) summarises the problem as “… resistors tend to be construed as individuals with constrained psychological or social attributes. Thus, they resist change because of personal cognitive and social limitations such as cognitive rigidity, conflicting schemas, low openness to change, risk aversion, and protection of self-interests.” What you see rarely in these lists is the possibility that people are resisting the change simply because the wrong change outcome or approach to implementation is being proposed. Yet business change failure rates suggest that the wrong outcome or approach are being attempted quite often. Eg "The majority of organisational change projects fail" (IBM, 2008); "35% of organisations abandoned a major business change project in the last three years” (Logica, 2008); "17% of large IT projects go so badly as to threaten the very existence of the company" (McKinsey, 2012). Though resistance to change is often claimed to be a causal factor in failed change initiatives (Georgalis et al, 2015), the failure rates above cannot all be explained by resistance. That would be to regard organisations as being more democratic than they are in reality, or to suggest that sabotage has occurred (it does happen but is uncommon). We must not forget that organisations have the ability to wield strong sanctions against those that it regards as being troublesome. In fact, resistance to change may explain a very low proportion of the failures cited in the statistics above. Independent audits and case studies on failed business change initiatives tend to show that in the vast majority of cases the wrong change or the wrong approach to implementing the change was being attempted. Furthermore, there was often a failure to listen to the people who do the job on a daily basis; ie resistors were ignored or ‘overcome’ when in fact listening to what they had to say would have been the best thing the organisation could have done. Another common factor in business change failure is that the business case for change was not made in a way that would elicit universal support. Both weak business cases and lack of general support are another reason why resistance can arise. So how does the wrong change or the wrong approach to change get proposed in the first place? There are many causal factors, but at the change definition level they include a poor understanding of the current situation; poor analysis of the problems facing the organisation; too narrow an understanding of the market / context in in which the organisation operates; failure to listen (really listen) to clients and colleagues (a form of complacency and arrogance). These risk factors for analysis can be mitigated by using formal business analysis techniques such as critical examination; SWOT; Porter’s Five Forces; and, the Boston Matrix. At the change definition level, there is also the elephant in the room - power and politics. Eg change being initiated by someone in the organisation trying to grab territory or wanting to be seen to be achieving great things for reasons of self-promotion. ‘Achieving’ is perhaps the wrong word, as instigating frenetic activity or marching everyone over the horizon to an ill-defined target - or up the hill and down again - is often enough to create an impression that someone is a mover and shaker. Readers may have seen the phenomenon in which someone with a track record of starting change initiatives always manages to move on before the chickens come home to roost. Even if remaining attached to the initiative in some way, they can set up others to take the blame if things go wrong. That is the horrible reality of power and politics. Organisational politicians are likely to regard resistance as unwelcome, in that it might frustrate their personal ambitions. That's when the worst aspects of 'overcoming' resistance are seen, including isolating individuals who are resisting by creating in-groups and out-groups (Tajfel, 1979). Ironically, it is the fact that organisational politicians are not trusted, or are treated with suspicion, that can create a general unease or resistance to their initiatives. If change is designed to only reflect the views of its supporters and ignore the views of its detractors, then we can see Tajfel’s (1979) Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Janis’s theory of groupthink (Janis, 1971, 1972) combining to the detriment of the organisation. SIT applies when those who support the change become the in-group while those who oppose the change are treated as an out-group. Groupthink applies when the in-group value their group cohesion more than they do the rigorous testing of their ideas for change. To quote Janis directly:
“I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.” (Janis, 1971, 43-46)
At the change implementation level, it is possible that the wrong approach to implementation is being attempted even when the desired change outcome is correct. Some high profile failures in the UK public sector spring to mind. Sometimes implementation failures occur when the people charged with directing and implementing the change lack relevant skills and experience. Sometimes the wrong solution is chosen for ‘commercial’ reasons. Sometimes there exists a dogmatic belief in a particular approach (which evokes the image of the person with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail); or, the approach used was a management fad going through a period of overuse. Flexibility is crucial in implementing business change, and this includes choosing the right approach for the change context as one size does not fit all. Remember, the goal is always more important than the method, but the method must be fit for purpose. Turning away from reasons for change failures and back to the subject of resistance to change, Carnall (1990) argued that employees go through a coping cycle for change that bears a strong resemblance to the stages of grief. Carnall’s stages are denying; defending; discarding; adapting; and, internalising. But to to treat resistance as a normal emotional response in which the role of the change leader is to help people go through the cycle and come out of it more compliant is arguably naive or patronising or both. What this and similar emotional models do not consider is the possibility that the defence of current practices and behaviours may be valid. Ie the defence is rational and based on fact, not an emotional inability to accept the inevitable and let go. If there is any emotion, it could be an emotional desire to see clients get the best service; or, to see colleagues treated with respect. We all know of examples in our daily lives when the old way of working was better than the new way of working (think of some changes to your council services). Kotter & Schlesinger (1979) proposed their Six Change Approaches to be used to “overcome resistance to change” (their phrase, p.134). The strategies are (in order): education and commitment; participation and involvement; facilitation and support; negotiation and agreement; manipulation and co-opting; and, implicit and explicit coercion. As you can see, the list is a continuum that starts with a genuine collaborative approach (education, commitment, participation, involvement), before moving onto more direct attempts to get own way (negotiation, agreement, manipulation, co-opting), and ends with the use of authority to impose change (coercion up to and including threatening people with the loss of their jobs). Co-opting people is differentiated from genuine involvement by the authors thus:
“This is not a form of participation… because the initiators do not want the advice of the co-opted, merely his or her endorsement.” (Kotter and Schlesinger, 1979, p.136). You can decide for yourself whether you concur with the view of the authors that where speed of change is important and the change will be unpopular “… coercion may be the manager’s only option.” (Kotter and Schlesinger, 1979, p.137).
To the credit of the authors, the first four strategies if used correctly can reduce the strength of any concerns about change as they invite people to help shape the change. There is a case for saying that the first four strategy pairs should be part of any approach to change - regardless of whether resistance is possible or has occurred. One writer and practitioner in change management who specialises in approaches that reduce the possibility of serious resistance arising in the first place (and who gives good advice on how to use resistance to the benefit of the change programme if it does occur) is Rick Maurer. Part of Maurer’s approach is to determine the level of resistance. In this method, Level 1 describes resistance to the content of the idea, facts, figures and data. Level 2 is an emotional response to what people perceive the change will mean to them. In Level 3, resistance works independently of the issue at hand (eg opposing the person or people sponsoring or leading the change). Level 1 is the easiest to deal with, while Level 3 is the hardest. In Level 3, the change being proposed may have been adopted as a proxy battle ground for resentments that have been simmering for a while. Often those resentments are related to previous change programmes - perhaps where promises were not met and / or unannounced job losses occurred. Without taking sides, the trades union disputes in the UK in the 1970’s spring to mind, as do some of the problematic attempts to implement job enrichment (eg self-managed teams) in the UK and elsewhere. Maurer recommends that his clients ask themselves two questions “why do people support us” and “why do people resist us”. When they understand the answers to those two questions, then the definition and implementation of change will be the best that it can be as it will anticipate reasons why people may not be happy with a particular change. Used properly, resistance will either not occur at all - or if it does it will occur at Level 1 where simply providing more information can allay concerns or can elicit useful information that helps to ‘trim the sails’. Regardless of the level or type of resilience being encountered, it is listening to the other party that is the secret to success when people have concerns. Success not in terms of ‘overcoming’ resistance, but instead success in terms of achieving the best possible outcomes. Anyone who thinks they have ‘overcome’ resistance is possibly fooling themselves. Often all that has happened is that is that resistance has been driven underground. It takes a lot of courage to say that the emperor has no clothes, so people who do speak up and express concerns should be respected, not manipulated. After many years of delivering change I have come to the strong conclusion that listening skills, more than any other factor, are the most important factor in change management. Analysis skills are also important, but where is the main source of the poor analysis if it is not failing to seek out and really listen to all the possible sources of information? There are many good guides on how to improve listening skills in business change situations, but they can be summarised as ‘listening carefully and respectfully’. Eg avoiding interrupting, correcting or challenging the speaker - even with your body language. Do not treat someone speaking as the interval in which you get your breath back before speaking again. Once you have really listened and understood, then what you say in response is critical. Useful information that you can impart to those who have concerns includes sharing similar situations that you have experienced; looking at the problem from their perspective and wondering out loud how you would feel and act; helping them to understand the desired outcome (and explaining why it is desired and how you think it could be achieved); and, being honest about any possible downsides of achieving the outcomes for the person or people to whom you are speaking. The two elements that change leaders find most difficult is to listen without interrupting, and putting themselves in the shoes of the other party. These things are not easy to do well, but just trying to do them is a big step in the right direction. But the most important thing is that you open yourself up to the possibility that you might be wrong. Ie all of your assumptions on the subject may be incorrect or at least in need of improvement. In summary, continuing to treat resistance to change as the enemy will only propagate the high business change failure rates reported in recent years. Something in change management itself needs to change to bring those rates down. If the change management profession cannot change then who can? Only once we start treating all feedback - including criticism - as useful, will we start to see things improving. Labelling feedback that you do not like as ‘resistance’ is lazy and potentially self-defeating. If change management ever needs another slogan, perhaps it should be ‘resistance is useful’. Article kindly provided by Cliff Moyce, Independent Management Consultant please click here to email Cliff Moyce. FURTHER INFORMATION