In Change Management

When a change programme hits the buffers – or at least stalls – it can be tempting to blame resistance from difficult people who seem determined to undermine it. But what if resistance was actually a force for good?

That is the thesis of some fascinating research from change management experts Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W. Ford, and it provides remarkable examples of where initial resistance has been leveraged to make a change programme even more successful.

Turning resistance on its head can be a powerful lever for change managers. Resistance is feedback, and like all feedback, it may be useful for improving the design and implementation of the process.

Half of all organisational changes fail 

It has been estimated that half of all organisational changes fail, so managers may neglect a vital opportunity to swing the odds in their favour.

Yet they often blame the failure of a change project on resistance from staff, other departments or a variety of stakeholders. According to Ford and Ford, this is because they perceive resistance as threatening, become competitive and defensive, and end up alienating potential partners in accomplishing change by labelling them as obstacles rather than resources; and they characterise resisters as irrational and self-serving rather than understanding there are two sides to the story.

Managers looking for suspects to blame for a faltering change programme may characterise resistance as ‘push-back’, ‘not buying in’, ‘criticism’ or ‘foot dragging’. Sometimes, however, it is as much about a manager’s reading of and reaction to a situation.

Ford and Ford describe a study where three managers set out an upcoming change project to three different groups of employees. Two groups asked lots of questions, which one manager perceived as negative resistance, while the other regarded it as positive engagement. And when the final group asked no questions at all, the manager presenting to them regarded that as hostile behaviour!

So it is not about the behaviours observed, but about the interpretation and judgement of the observer(s) doing the labelling.

3 reasons why managers blame failure on resistance to change:

1. Cognitive bias

We tend to attribute success to our own skills and hard work but failure to external factors, including the resistance of others.

2. Social dynamics

Failure can risk embarrassment, loss of respect, a bonus or promotion, so managers who encounter problems, delays or surprises during organisational change may seek an explanation that preserves their social position and reputation, i.e. resistance.

3. Managerial mistakes

Such as overstating the benefits and underplaying the downsides of a change. This undermines trust and confidence; people feel betrayed and are more sceptical next time around. This is perceived as resistance.

If managers view that response, not as resistance but as feedback, it can offer valuable input to refine the change process.

Using resistance to improve the change process

Most people do not respond well to the idea of changing what they are doing while simultaneously being held accountable for continuing to produce their assigned results. But resistance has value:

  • In the early stages, talk, whether negative or positive, might be the only thing that keeps a change proposal alive
  • Complaints and controversy keep people aware that change is coming. 

Ford and Ford give the example of a South Korean pharmaceutical company introducing a birth control product. It revealed: “In the beginning, we weren’t concerned whether people were talking in a positive or even a negative way, because either way, it was bringing attention to our issue. . .”

Examples suggest that shifting the objective from ‘overcoming resistance’ to engaging it as useful feedback can turn a failing change programme into a success:

  • A manager whose new IT plans were met with confusion and concern adopted a new motto: ‘‘When in doubt, bring the purpose out.’’ She had a banner made for the cafeteria spelling out the three benefits of the new system, and reminded people of them in every meeting. When staff knew why things were changing, they were more willing to join the process.
  • People who are outspoken about their objections to a change proposal are often people who genuinely care about getting things right, and who are close enough to the inner workings of an organisation to see the pitfalls in a plan. Managers who are willing to work with them can see their change proposals altered for the better.
  • A manager who organised a Change Tour visiting all employees affected by a shake-up and put their feedback on poster boards was able to bypass the negative aspect of ‘resistance’ by inviting it, capturing it and displaying it for all to see.
  • After anger over broken promises about pay rises and promotion following a previous change, a new manager offered a heartfelt apology and vowed to make things right. Research shows that admitting mistakes does not weaken leaders but increases their credibility. Managers who listen to the reaction to change can identify issues from the past that need to be recognised or resolved to add momentum to the new change process.
  • When responses to a change proposal are immediately critical and vocal, managers should consider whether there is actually a serious flaw in some aspects of the programme. Although such responses can be demoralising, they provide an opportunity to listen and learn what revisions they need to make to a proposal that may be confusing, ambiguous or incomplete. Local knowledge can offer real-world intelligence as to what the plan really means for pivotal departments and for the process as a whole.

Resistance is natural

What can we conclude from this?

Above all, that resistance is a naturally occurring phenomenon in organisational change. People will have objections, worries and fears, and these reactions can contain

valuable information that can be used to accelerate and smooth the process. Resistance is energy to be channelled for the benefit of change objectives.

As Ford and Ford point out: “Resistance can be understood as the legitimate response of engaged and committed people who want a voice in something that is important to them. 

Change planning and implementation can be made smarter, faster, and cheaper by listening to the feedback embedded in ‘resistance’.”

 Source: Stop Blaming Resistance to Change and Start Using It by Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W. Ford, Organizational Dynamics Vol. 39

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