Change Work November 2009

A change is as good as a rest!

Why do people resist change?

Well, that question is interesting in itself, presupposing as it does that the change would be good and that resistance to it is therefore bad.  Let's go along with that to the extent of assuming that we're talking about a change that is either unavoidable or is well-intentioned.  In either case, resisting the change would appear to be irrational.

As an example, consider the situation where the management of a company or a department has decided to make an organisational change that they believe will improve customer service.  Some people's jobs are affected by this requiring them to take on new responsibilities.

One reason that people affected might object is that they disagree with the reasons for the change or with the likely effectiveness of the new strategy.  They'll find it difficult to implement new practices with enthusiasm if they aren't convinced of their value.  In this situation, more information and discussion is appropriate leading, ideally, to consensus or at least an agreement to give the new way a try.

Another reason for objection is that some may feel that their personal interests are threatened in some way.  For example, having to do more work or to learn new skills and that this isn't being fairly recognised.  Clearly, negotiation is the way forward in this case and attempting to drive the change through without meeting objections of this type is to seek a win-lose result.

Both of the above situations can be characterised as "rational" in that they are (to some extent) amenable to argument and compromise.  In contrast, a third type of resistance often arises that is not usually open to negotiation.  It's rooted in the values and beliefs of the people involved.

The person resisting often feels the problem to be so personal that it can't even be discussed.  Consequently, they will hide the real issue (sometimes even from themselves) and instead put forward arguments that seem rational.  Obviously, discussion and compromise around these arguments will not resolve the situation.

For example, a colleague of mine was booked into a training course on "presentation skills" because his boss recognised this as something that he needed to improve.  This person was acutely anxious about presenting to an audience and thought, rightly, that the course would involve a lot of practice in front of the class.  He was so afraid of this prospect that he knew he couldn't do it and so looked for any reason to get out of it: he was too busy, it was inconvenient, he'd been on other courses that didn't work, he didn't really need to make presentations, etc.  In the end though, he admitted what the problem was and simply refused to go.  Any consequence would be preferable to the thing he feared.

This was an apparently trivial change that was clearly meant to benefit the individual as much as the company but it evoked strenuous, and completely unexpected, resistance.

Now, what would have been the effect on this person if he'd somehow been forced to attend the training?  Perhaps at the end he might have looked back and wondered what he'd been worried about.  Or perhaps he would have been left angry and bitter. In either event he would have experienced considerable stress.  And so would anyone who is forced to endure a change that they fear.

Change puts you in a new situation with new demands.  Sometimes you just can't "see yourself doing that".  It isn't that you don't know what to do (it's often something quite simple, e.g., stand up and say some words), it's more a case of not knowing how to "carry it off" with dignity intact.  Most of us fear this loss of control more than anything else we're likely to meet in our everyday lives.

How can you recognise when someone's in this position?  Some typical signs are:

If any of these clues appear then it's worth involving an independent person in a counselling role.  It has to be someone who has no interest in the change and will be accepted by the individual as being on their side.  If they are sympathetic they will probably uncover the underlying issue.  The solution may involve training, coaching or a complete change of job that avoids the problem.

So, resistance to change can arise out of a genuine difference of opinion about its value - and that can be resolved by reasoned argument.  Quite often though, maybe most often, people resist change because they believe that they will be unable to carry it through for some reason, personal to them.  And if that's what they believe then that's the reality for them.

In other words: why do people resist change?  Because they can't help it!