Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Fallacy of Resistance to Change

by Dawn-Marie Turner, PhD

Imagine implementing change where the majority of individuals are moving your organization toward the intended outcome, where individuals use change as a means for success and where resistance to change does not exist. Sound impossible? It’s not when you realize that people don’t fundamentally resist change.

Although it is often identified as the number one reason organizational changes fail, resistance to change does not really exist. Some researchers have even advocated for striking the term from our change vocabulary. Change is a part of our human experience, and you need only look around to realize that individuals are changing daily. Think about it -- how many changes have you willingly made in your life recently?

What people do resist is the apprehension, uncertainty and discomfort that often accompany organizational change. The activities they engage in to try to lessen these feelings are too often labeled as resistance to the change itself. The reality is that almost all the resistance to change your organization experiences can be prevented if you recognize what these activities really indicate and are able to help people move through them so that they can fully support the change.

Resistance is a symptom

Before talking about what you can do to prevent resistance it is helpful to understand the nature of resistance. Contrary to popular belief, resistance is not a stage of change or an outcome. It is a symptom of an unresolved issue or problem manifested in behaviour, action or words.

For many organizations resistance has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they expect people to resist, leaders do little to prevent it. They then listen and watch for the behaviours that support their expectation and proceed to manage accordingly. Managing for resistance is expensive, time consuming and drains your organization of its natural change energy. When change is managed from an expectation of resistance you get, at best, a change that limps to the implementation finish line but fails to achieve its intended outcome. At worst, you end up with a change that is completely abandoned. In either case the result is most often bitter, cynical employees who work to protect the status quo.

Lack of resistance is not readiness

It is almost impossible to talk about resistance without talking for a moment about readiness. Readiness is the willingness of individuals to engage in the behaviours, activities and attitudes that are required to make the transition. It reflects the individuals’ movement through the transition process.

Douglas Smith, author of Taking Charge of Change, has estimated that when a change is launched, 60 to 80 per cent of individuals are neither ready for nor resistant to the change, and that the action or inaction of leaders determines in which direction they go. All too often it is the latter.

Readiness is important because it prevents resistance, but a lack of resistance does not mean readiness. Managing for readiness engages your employees, makes better use of current resources and creates an organization that is more competitive, resilient and adaptive to its business environment.

Preventing resistance first requires a shift in thinking -- away from resistance as an outcome of change toward viewing what is labeled as resistance as an indicator.

Five guidelines to help prevent resistance in your organization:
  1. Assess the affected individuals’ perception of the change and their level of change readiness.
  2. Launch and manage the change from the perception and readiness of the individuals most affected by the change -- not from your own perception or readiness for the change.
  3. Listen – for the language of readiness.
  4. Communicate through conversation and interactive dialogue.
  5. Actively involve and engage the individuals affected by the change in the planning and implementation of change

Remember that like beauty, resistance is in the eye of the beholder. It is the change leader’s reaction to the individual responses to the change that ultimately determines whether the activity, behaviour or attitude is labeled as resistance.

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