Back to Basics
“Contrary to everything we think we know about the complicated issue of change management, people do not resist change.”
Each time I make this statement, I shield myself from a storm of rotten fruit thrown by the audience. I expect this response, because the idea that “people resist change” is ingrained in our beliefs and in every bestseller ever written on change management. Despite the initial fierce resistance to what appears to be a bizarre idea, after only a few questions, people’s minds begin to drastically change.
To shake anyone’s belief regarding “resistance to change,” they need only face a glaring contradiction between their stated beliefs and their behaviour.
What are the largest, most dramatic changes that can occur in our lives (not counting death, over which we have little control)? Many people suggest getting married and then having children as possible answers. Few would disagree – these are hugely life-changing events.
If these two events, marriage and children, are indeed huge change events, and if it is also true that “people resist change”, then why do most people get married and have kids – voluntarily? I’ve not seen too many shotgun marriages in my life.
If it is true that we resist change, then why do we seek to advance our careers? Learn to drive a car? Learn a new language or musical instrument? Go someplace different for our next vacation? Listen to new music? All of these actions and voluntary decisions, directly and unarguably, shatter the “we resist change” myth.
We do not resist change. We do, however, resist being changed.
If there is a weakness in the above observation, it is that it sounds far too simplistic. The answer to all change management problems encountered in our organizations cannot be that simple. The solution to change management problems must be very complicated, involved, and especially, it must be costly. You cannot summarize it into 10 little words.
Fortunately or unfortunately, take your pick, the harsh reality is that we can trace all change management issues, large or small, back to this simple observation. Are the people involved being forced to change? Or have they themselves decided a change is necessary to overcome a recognized problem? At the very least, do they have enough information to decide for themselves that the change being implemented (or forced) is an appropriate response to a known problem?
Here’s another approach to this issue. Think back to the absolute worst change management experience you’ve ever lived through. There were at least two groups, possibly more, involved in your fondly remembered debacle. At least one group, possibly management, was pushing for the change. The other group, likely staff, resisted it in every way they could.
Ignore the resistors; focus only on those who were pushing for the change. Why weren’t they resisting it? When I ask that question I often get a strange look and an exasperated reply, “Because! They wanted the change, you fool!” which then begs the question…why did they want the change?
If you continue this line of questioning long enough, you will inevitably arrive at the following line of reasoning: those pushing for the change became aware of something that threatened the viability of the status quo. If they did nothing different in response to this perceived threat, the consequences would be unacceptable. As a response to this threat, they came up with a solution that they believed would solve the problem. This became the change they believed in and were trying to implement.
To bring about change, without force or resistance, we must involve as many people as possible in the above thought process. Here’s another simple observation – we do not resist the change we choose to create ourselves.
If it happens that we cannot involve everyone in the decision-making process, then at the very least this process must be transparent to everyone. As a secondary choice, this does not work as well as direct involvement, but it succeeds far more than attempting to merely force people to change.
de Jager is a change management consultant. Before you inflict unnecessary resistance on your organization, contact him email@example.com.