Is Resistance to Change Necessarily Bad?
Many of us can recount stories of organizational change initiatives that did not deliver the outcomes promised. This lack of success is not limited to a particular type of initiative. There is an alphabet soup of changes that your organization might have tried with disappointing results. No matter what the acronym, sabotage and resistance are often blamed for such failures. I cannot count the number of times participants in my workshop on organizational change focus on—perhaps blame—resisters as the main source of the problem implementing change. It might feel better to have a scapegoat, but it is rarely a sign of progress.
Resistance may be covert or overt, but it is not passive; it typically requires some action on the part of the resister. Actions like complaining about the change or its implementation in the cafeteria, raising and re-raising diversionary questions at meetings, or even ignoring planning meetings can be covert resistance. Covert resistance is a problem. If a legitimate problem with a change is raised at the water cooler, but not at a planning meeting, then it won’t be addressed. There are lots of reasons for covert resistance. Whenever it stems from employees who recognize a problem but do not feel safe raising it, it is a lost opportunity. The earlier that decision makers learn of a problem the easier it is to understand and fix, and thus the less impact it will have on the change.
Overt actions, such as specifically and openly challenging an announcement or decision, declaring the change a mistake or a waste of time, or flatly stating an unwillingness to comply with the charge are clear acts of overt resistance. Overt resistance is not necessarily bad. Employees may recognize negative consequences of the change or problems with its implementation that leaders may have failed to anticipate during planning or identify during implementation. If resisters are motivated by a concern for the success of the change, then their overt resistance can be an early warning system. Overt resisters should be encouraged to fully communicate the problems they see, and decision makers need to investigate the issues raised for potential pitfalls. If these problems are real, then informed decisions can be made about addressing them.
I worked with a company implementing a Risk Management System (RMS). There was plenty of hallway grumbling about a lack of tools to implement the system, but one very vociferous engineer made a difference. He gained the change leader’s attention by very clearly articulating the problems caused by not having the necessary tools. The leader took the risky path of putting this engineer in charge of a technical aspect of the RMS project. The engineer evaluated the available tools and was given budget to procure the most appropriate. More importantly, he was able to explain to his colleagues how the system worked and what they should expect from it in terms they understood. He became an important advocate of the RMS, gaining extensive buy-in from many engineers.
Active resistance, whether overt or covert, is less of a problem that people simply ignoring the change. Behaviors needed to make the change work typically involve acquiring new skills while keeping up with current responsibilities—not a trivial endeavor. With the odds of success for most change initiatives well under 50/50, the path of least resistance is simply to “wait and see.” Unless there a very clear indication that this change will succeed, the rational, logical reaction to it is simply apathy. The latest change will likely be forgotten, as everything returns to “business as usual.”
The role of change leadership is to make sure a need change initiative isn’t forgotten. There are two important resources to leverage: Overt resisters who are able to articulate real difficulties with the change can identify areas that need to be addressed; and enthusiastic advocates of the initiative who have used the tools or processes of the change and recognize their value can help spread interest in the change to their peers.
About the Author
Dr. Andrea Shapiro
Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.
After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through StrategyPerspective.com or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.