Change Management: Resistance to Change is a Myth!
The CEO was clearly exasperated. The HR director was reporting on the slowness of integrating two cultures from a recent acquisition. The change management consultant was pleading for leader patience. “Hell, I can’t afford to be patient,” barked the CEO. “I know people resist change, but they better get on board fast or we won’t have a company for them to bitch about!”
Resistance to change is a myth! It is not that there isn’t resistance; it’s not about change; in fact, people change all the time. People resist what they perceive or predict will result in “pain” over which they have no control. Rather than eliminating resistance pests, wise organizations manage change in a fashion that these pests never show up. Let’s examine the core sentence in greater detail.
“People resist what they perceive or predict…” implies resistance begins with a vision or picture. When people sense change in the winds, they assess its potential impact based on what they know, what they’ve heard, and what they’ve experienced. Absent limited information, some react to simply the “fear of the unknown.” Again, ‘what they have experienced’ telegraphs whether to be cautious of the unknown or courageously embrace the unknown.
…Will result in ‘pain’” suggests a person’s belief that the change will cause discomfort. “Pain” may be loss of job, loss of status, or loss of influence. It can also mean the pain of rejection, looking stupid, or losing contact with important relationships. Part of effective change management includes getting a clear sense of precisely what “pain” represents to the people impacted by the change.
“…Over which they have no control” informs us that it is not simply “pain” we resist, but rather discomfort over which we have no influence. That annual New Year’s ‘get in shape’ resolution always carries some amount of pain. We know it; we expect it. And, we have control over the resolution. Control implies a belief that we will not be the victim of the change; that will we will instead help shape the change or how we are impacted by the change.
Defining the nature of resistance provides the foundation on which change management can be constructed. Every part of the definition of change resistance represents a path to the factors important to change management. If “perception or prediction” is a key factor in resistance, for instance, then extraordinary communication becomes a key strategy for overcoming resistance. If “control” is a key factor of resistance, then inclusion becomes a vital strategy of change management.
Resistance Pest #1: “They Don’t Care What We Think”
This resistance pest generally contains an element of truth. Many organizations have been long on pronouncement; short on participation. The more top-down “now-hear-this” decisions are made, the more the ‘we-they’ schism is fueled.
Effective change management requires broad-based inclusion or participation. The ancient adage “people will care if they share” has great truth. While few employees expect any organization to “let us run the place,” they expect to be trusted and asked for their input on areas that matter to them. It is difficult to feel a “victim” when one has a hand in crafting the outcome. Through inclusion they share control.
Resistance Pest #2: “What’s In It For Me”
People are not inherently selfish. However, they choose where to put their efforts based on what they perceive as worthy of those efforts. Effective change management requires ensuring there is a clear, obvious link between their effort and some outcome people believe has emotional worth. Worth comes in many forms…economics, affirmation, growth, or status.
However, the root of worth lies in the degree it has emotional grounding. Smart organizations help employees see the link between required change and competitive survival. They help employees understand that a winning organization is one that is adaptive, responsive and perpetually in sync with the needs of its marketplace.
Resistance Pest #3: “This Too Shall Pass”
Organizations have been weathering major change for a long time. And, given the short-term attention span of many executives, employees have typically seen many change efforts come and go. They have developed a facility for stoically resisting until it all blows over. The effective change management strategy is to take actions that convince people the change effort is not going away.
This means the change must have relevant anchors deliberately grounded to the norms and values of the organization. Relevant means anchors that capture the attention of employees and are deemed important. When the incentive system is altered to reflect the change effort; when change champions are the people getting the best assignments; or when executive leadership frequently asks for status reports on the change efforts, such actions telegraph relevance.
Resistance Pest #4: “Psst…Have You Heard That…”
There is a Peanuts strip in which the teacher asked Lucy, “What is 3 + 4?” Lucy did not know the answer. The teacher tested Lucy again, “What is 4 + 8?” Again, Lucy came up blank. A third time the teacher asked, “What is 5 + 2?” In desperation to save face in front of her peers, Lucy answered, “I don’t know. But, I can spell ‘Mississippi!!” When people are expected to know and do not, they save face by concocting what they believe to be true. And, few factors derail worthy change faster than a falsehood fervently believed.
As the anxiety of change increases, people will “spell Mississippi when they can’t do the math.” The best cure for rumors and myths is through extraordinary (extra and out-of-the-ordinary) communicating. As people get the information they need, resistance is quelled as they develop perceptions of the future less painful than they imagined.
Resistance Pest #5: “They Don’t Walk The Talk”
Effective change management requires consistent leader models, actions by those who hold the greatest influence over employees. In most organizations, the influencers are the leaders, particularly at the top. But it could be influential peers. People take their cue as to a change effort’s importance by the manner they witness leaders consistently acting congruently with the needed change. People are leader-watchers. And, they don’t watch mouths, they watch moves…observation counts far more than conversation.
There will always be resistance pests around any important change effort. It is helpful to remember what Price Pritchett calls the 20-50-30 rule: twenty percent of any population are early endorsers of change, eager to embrace progress, while thirty percent are likely to resist no matter what actions are taken. The resistance pests most in need of eradication are housed in the fifty percent “fence sitters,” those early resistors who, with effective change management, could join the endorsers.