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Why resistance to change isn't always bad​

Change resistance commonly refers to one of the recurring problems which business leaders face in relation to change. In fact, it’s typically cited as the biggest contributor to failure. In my view, what’s typically characterized as resistance is not always a bad thing. Resistance is an opportunity to deepen your relationship with your people; they’re moments of clarity.

Organizational change is a continuum; it’s a process. Resistance is a normal, natural response to change, and is usually the first part of this process. When people initially resist change, it’s usually because they do not see the need to change the status quo. People will not change and go through the painful process of unlearning the old and embracing the new unless they are dissatisfied with the status quo. Ironically, it is losing confidence in their abilities and their organizations that motivates people and gives them the energy to overcome organizational inertia. Organizational change is hard and requires enormous amounts of physical and intellectual energy. Without a sense of urgency, therefore, it is impossible to mobilize people to adopt new values, attitudes, and behaviours. 

People who are affected by change experience emotional turmoil, even when changes are positive or rational in nature. The challenge is to help and support people through the transition, which can be intensely emotional and involve loss. This transition is usually characterized by a popular model called the “change curve”. The change curve is a powerful model used to understand the stages of individual change and organizational change. It helps predict how people will react to change so that you can make sure they have the help and support they need, depending on where they are on the curve. With the knowledge of the change curve, you can plan how to minimize the disruption due to change by making the “valley of despair” (i.e. the period of time when productivity decreases) shallower and narrower. This will help to accelerate the change process and increase the likelihood of success for your initiative.

The best way to manage resistance to change is to anticipate and plan for it. Get comfortable with it as the natural, human response to change and be sensitive to the impact of change on your people. Bring resistance to the surface by engaging your people in thoughtful, authentic, two-way dialogue. Beware of the “corporate nod”. Examine the individual predispositions to change in your people, and allow them to bring up any concerns in a safe environment. Their concerns are often legitimate, so be prepared to adapt your change plan. Understand where they may be coming from, and give your people a chance to destabilize. Make them feel heard and empathize, as Stephen Covey says, “seek first to understand before being understood”.

Once people are able to diffuse discomfort around the change by talking it through, asking questions or connecting with their peers, they’re then able to move on to get the information they need to support the change. Ideally, help people find their own solutions by coaching them through the change. Continue to monitor the implementation process and adapt where necessary to ensure continued commitment. 

Next, you must understand the capacity for change in people in your organization and assess their readiness. Dispel any misunderstanding and mistrust by showing how the benefits of the change outweigh the costs. Conduct a force-field analysis and strengthen the driving forces for change (and restrain the inhibiting forces). Use direct and effective communications to speak to the need for change and the costs of not changing. Move your organization out of complacency by convincing a critical mass of individuals that the change is worth the inevitable, ensuing costs. Use a compelling model of the future to energize members of the organization and align all the internal elements. 

Finally, use strategic thinking to help people get unstuck. You will be more effective in leading change efforts if they are seen in the context of the larger picture, which includes both stability and change. As you focus on change, it’s important to value stability. People resist the downside of change (chaos) and the loss of the upside of stability (continuity). It is also true that people resist the downside of stability (stagnation) and the loss of the upside of change (new energy). Manage the polarities of embracing change and maintaining stability by helping people focus on the upsides to both values and create action plans. 

Think about it - if you didn’t have resistance to change, then you’d have groupthink. You’d also have a less engaged and committed workforce, who may be simply complying with your wishes or worse still, actively subverting the change effort (i.e. privately disparaging it while pretending to support). Transparent conversations are not always easy, and yet they are essential for organizational growth. Turn what may seem like a “wall” into a “bridge”, by making the process facilitative and gaining diverse opinions. Turn your vocal skeptics into active leaders for the change, who help others to rally behind it. And, stop labelling those who resist as “bad”. 

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