Monday, February 22, 2010


People always respond appropriately to a situation—from their point of view. The idea that people resist change is a myth. You can use this truth to build support for rapid change.

People change in response to their environment—if I am cold I put on a sweater, if I am short of cash I don’t eat at an expensive restaurant. If people or organizations are not changing, you can assume they don't feel the need to change, i.e. their environment has not changed—from their point of view.

None of us think we are rigid, or resist change. We each think we respond appropriately to our situation. If we imagining that people or companies resist change we aren't seeing their experience. If we don't see that, our well intended plans for change may fail.

In one company, managers for years thought that employees were resisting their pleas to be more cost conscious. But in daily production meetings, only production numbers (not the financials) were reviewed, and employee annual performance reviews never included cost issues. The result was that employees did not experience costs as significant.

Once managers decided to include cost information in meetings, employees reduced cost—just as they did at home. As people connected better to their financial environment their “resistance” to cost cutting disappeared.

Why Should I Change?

Telling a person that they should change, when they don't understand why, probably won't work. Of course you can force change, but that is autocratic, a poor cultural value, and produces hostility. It is better to keep people well connected. Try these:

  • Apprise people regularly of the big picture, of plans, changes, the financials, clients, new purchase orders, technology, laws and regulations.
  • Involve people in decisions that affect them, so they see that you want them connected.
  • When a situation develops that you know requires changes, bring the affected people together. Use the Four-Step Decision Process and discuss Step One – “The Situation”, and people’s experience of it. Usually discussing the situation, particularly hearing the perspectives of peers, is enough for people to see their situation clearly and more completely. Change follows.

Ambivalence is an ordinary part of most human situations and sometimes looks like "resistance". Very little in life is black and white. Many company decisions involve carefully balancing the upside against the downside. If work teams members show, by their words or actions, that they do not support a decision, they may simply expressing similar ambivalence:

  • They may not have the same information that leaders do, and therefore not have come to the same conclusion as leaders.
  • They may know something about the situation that leaders do not know, but they don't feel comfortable speaking up. (This is fairly common when the issue involves very detailed information about processes or relationships, which may be only known to those most closely connected with the operation.)
  • They may be testing the resolve of the team leader—for example if a supervisor calls a team meeting and asks for participation, but people remain silent. They may be testing whether the supervisor really does want their participation.
  • They may be saying what they believe the culture wants them to say—for example, in a typical authoritarian culture, if a supervisor asks for participation, somebody might say, "Let's not waste time talking about this. Why don't you tell us what you want?” It's not that the person does not want to participate. Rather that directiveness is familar, and it lets them be directive—which, let's face it, does have its pleasures.
Structural Roadblocks

The systems we build in corporations are complex. We can't always see what is pushing or pulling people to behave one way or another. People are not always conscious of these forces, or they might not want to recognize them. Here are a few:

  • What's in it for me? Is there no obvious benefit? Where is the incentive?
  • Is there some reward or recognition for not changing? If a purchasing manager receives bonus as incentive to buy low-cost products, why should she care that the low-cost product causes problems elsewhere in the system?
  • If I look up the company's hierarchy and see managers not buying into the change, where is my incentive? Why should I endanger my career by changing myself?
  • If the game plan around here is win-lose, and you ask me to play win-win, good luck! This is particularly true with departmental budgets.
Your Goal As A Leader

We all feel our behavior is appropriate. How could we not? As a leader, if you create a situation where people are well connected, they will experience change as natural and appropriate.

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