The Radio Show Recap...
In this segment of “The Working Life,” Carol Blymire interviewed me about “resistance to change” in the workplace. We discussed how to best manage resistance to change and how to work with (or for) someone who is resistant to change. Change, even when good, strikes fear in the hearts of many because it means something different is going to happen. Being an effective change agent in the workplace requires the ability to understand and navigate resistance.
Carol’s Question: Let’s start with the most basic question – why are we so afraid of change?
My Thoughts: We fear change for many reasons. First of all, most of us are wired for homeostasis. We seek equilibrium and stability. Change disrupts that. Second of all, change is often an unknown—and most humans fear ambiguity—especially if we happen to like the way things are. Thirdly and probably most powerfully, change often gets interpreted as “loss.” It often means loss of a favored way of doing something, loss of control, status, pleasure, identity, etc. The paradox of creation is destruction—in order to create anything new something old must be destroyed. This is as true for a sculptor who must “destroy” that plain slab of marble in order to create a beautiful stature as it is for a manager who must destroy an old favored process in order to create a new more orderly process. So it is only natural that people become afraid—loss, destruction, ambiguity, and imbalance are difficult states—especially if change is being imposed upon you not by you.
Carol’s Question: Isn’t the fear of change usually about something other than the actual thing that is changing?
My Thoughts: Yes and no. And this is where change agents often get into trouble. In order to support effective change, leaders and managers have to be much more in tune with the underlying causes of the fear and resistance in each particular situation. Sometimes, it really is just about the change itself. For example lets imagine my boss wanted to move my office to another location. Now I might resist the change simply because I need the close proximity to the copy machine in order to be most efficient and effective in my job—therefore the change itself would be a problem for me. On the other hand I may resist the change due to a real or perceived sense of status that comes with the office move—meaning it is not the change itself I fear—but the social-psychological aftermath.
Remember, human beings are both complex and simple at the same time. We get into trouble when we place simple solutions on complex problems and complex solutions on simple problems. Always try to find the right solution for the problem at hand—before during and after the change.
Carol’s Question: Are there steps along the way that you can talk about – steps in the transition process around change in the workplace?
My Thoughts: Yes. Let me take a moment to differentiate between change, transition, and resistance.
Change is what is observably or concretely different from before—for example: moved to a new office, implemented a new software system, restructured the department, etc.
Transition is the psychological adjustment that occurs as individuals and groups adapt to the changes that have occurred or are occurring. The length, breadth and difficulty of the transition depend upon the significance and magnitude of the change.
Resistance is a force that slows or stops movement. It is a natural and expected part of change! Smart change agents know this and work with resistance instead of against it.
So in terms of transition–the psychological adjustment–here is a simple 3-phase model created by William Bridges.Clearly people need different things at different phases. A change agent who is in tune with the transition phases can offer more targeted support and solutions.
Phase 1: Endings. In this phase people are forced to face the end of something and endings always involve a symbolic death. People in this phase often experience: disengagement, dis-identification, disenchantment and disorientation. People can be angry, hurt, defensive, suspicious, scared and resistant in this phase.
Phase 2: The Neutral Zone. In the neutral zone, people are beginning to let go and test new ideas. They are likely to be depressed, isolated, confused, tired, and empty. Imagine the transition process is a U shape—the neutral zone encompasses the low point. It is also, the point where new beginnings become possible. The neutral zone is where the resistance starts to ebb and people stop facing backward and begin to face forward. (The neutral zone can be a very short intellectual phase for some and a very long and painful emotional phase for others.)
Phase 3: New Beginnings. In this phase people start to launch anew. They begin testing or experimenting with the change. They start to feel more comfortable with change-especially if they experience small successes along the way. As they begin to find meaning in the change—their self worth and satisfaction increases. Eventually, they are able to fully integrate the change and completely let go of the old.
Carol’s Question: How can someone recognize his or her own resistance to change, and then try to redirect that resistance toward something more productive?
My Thoughts: Great question! If you sense you are being left behind or feel like you are tilting at windmills—then you are probably resisting. And lets be honest—most of us can tell when we are resisting—it takes a lot of energy to resist. The first thing to do is to admit you are resisting. (Isn’t that always the first step to any problem?) Then do some honest self-exploration to uncover your resistance. What is it that you are afraid of? What do you think is “wrong” about the change? What are you worried about? Facing (or at least acknowledging) your fears, doubts and insecurities is the first most powerful thing you can do. Once you’ve done that—trust me, you’ll know what to do next.
Carol's Question: There is a theory that says there are three levels of resistance. What are they, and how do you work to overcome them?
My Thoughts: Yes, Rick Mauer has developed an effective framework for navigating resistance. I love sharing this model with my clients and students because you can just see the light bulbs going off.
Rick Mauer outlines the 3 levels of resistance in organizational life:
Level 1: The Idea Itself. This is based on information: facts, figures, and ideas. It is the world of rational action and logical thinking. Level 1 resistance is about:
- Information (lack of)
- Disagreement with the idea itself
- Don’t like it
- Don’t understand it / Don’t know why it’s important to you
- Believe in the status quo
- Don’t know the impact the change will have on them
- Don’t think you realize what cost will be in money or time
- Have own ideas about where change should go
- Like idea but think timing is wrong
Level 2: Deeper Issues. This is where we have to deal with the physiological & emotional reaction to this change (And this is where things get interesting.) This is a physiological reaction to change. Based primarily on fear/anxiety/concern for the unknown–totally natural. This level of resistance is caused by:
- Distrust of you or your operation
- Bureaucratic culture
- Punishment & rewards
- Loss of respect and face caused by change
- Fear of being marginalized or isolated
- External events
- Resilience — too much change, people are tired
Level 3: Deeply Embedded Resistance. This is bigger than the current change itself. This is deeply entrenched stuff, bigger than the ideas at hand. People are not resisting the idea (in fact they may even like the idea)—they are resisting you (the person proposing change), your department or your organization. This may be due to:
- Historic animosity: bureaucratic and personal
- Poor relationships
- Conflicting values & visions
- Usually involves more than one Level II factors
The most important thing is to be sure to match the right strategy with the right resistance. Repeatedly extolling the “rational” virtues of the change to folks who are scared to death of losing their jobs (or who hate you!) is never ever going to help reduce the resistance.
Carol’s Question: Let’s say you’re in a management position, or a position in your organization in charge of implementing something new. How do you work with employees who may be resistant to change? I would imagine you have to work with different groups or individuals in different ways.
My Thoughts: Yes, while resistance is natural and expected—the time of transition and depth of resistance is a huge variable. To make matters even more difficult, different people can and will respond dramatically differently to the same change. While I encourage change agents to be respectful and considerate of all people and groups during the change process—one has to be realistic and strategic about where to put one’s resources.
Generally speaking people fall into one of several categories:
Innovators (top 3%)
Those people seek opportunities & new creative ways of doing things
Strategy: Brainstorm with them to generate creative, new solutions.
Early Adopter (next 13% )
Those who are open to new creative new ways, but don’t necessarily cook up the initial idea (they're the first ones who buy any new technology.)
Strategy: Get them involved as early as possible. Involve them in doing pilot projects or phase one implementation.
Early Majority (next 34%)
Those who will change once they see concretely what the change might look like or accomplish.
Strategy: Show them success from phase one or pilot activities and help them see how those successes can apply to their area.
Late Majority (next 34%)
Those who will get on board when they see it’s real and they don’t have much choice.
Strategy: Stay in touch with them and meet their needs without spending too much energy. Do not let them distract your progress.
Remainder (last 16%)
Those who wait to get on the last train leaving the station (or who miss it).
Strategy: Keep the doors open AND the train moving. But DO NOT hold the train.
Make sure you work with closely with the Innovators, Early Adopters and Early Majority to build momentum and commitment for the change.
Carol’s Question: Can you share any communications tools or strategies to better work with employees, or employers, who might be resistant to change?
My Thoughts: Of course people have written whole books on this subject—so let me give it to you in a nutshell: Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Communication is, of course, your most powerful tool.
- Be open and honest about the change
- Clearly articulate the goals and processes of the change
- Respect those who resist: listen for the issues people are really concerned about and talk about them—doesn’t mean you need to “cave.”
- Relax and maintain clear focus—remember resistance is a natural useful force
- Join the resistance! In other words, stop resisting the resistance—you might just learn something!
My recommendations for further reading:
- Rick Mauer, Beyond the wall of resistance
- William Bridges, Transitions
- John Kotter, The Heart of Change
- And of course—Who Moved My Cheese