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Engaging Resistance to Achieve the Change We Want

August 7, 2014

Engaging Resistance to Achieve the Change We Want

Too often, as managers and consultants we slip into trying to control or fight resistance. We develop a “change agent-centric view” that resistance is a dysfunctional reaction that we have to overcome in order to affect change (See Ford, et al., 2008).  Through understanding resistance, we can more effectively frame how we communicate change. Through engaging with resistance, we can improve the change process.

Understanding Some Common Sources of Resistance

When a major intentional or unwanted/unforeseen change happens in an organization, those directly affected by the event usually experience challenges to their social identities, their sense of meaning and purpose, and their influence over their work situations.  They commonly ask:

Who am I now, what is my work, and do I still belong here?

To varying degrees, most people’s social identity is connected with the work they do and the people they are connected with in their work. They can experience change as a threat to their identity and to the relationships they have formed in the workplace. This can happen even if the change is about improving services and their jobs are not at stake. For those whose professions are helping others change, when the change turns to them and their department, they may fear they will fail and no longer be seen as the best at their jobs (See Argyris, 1991).

Why this change now and what is the meaning/purpose of this?

People want to know why there is a need for the change. If they have not had a role in the decision making, they want to know what is the rationale and purpose for the change. They want to be assured that what is happening or about to happen is worth the investment of time and energy.

How can I influence this?

Part of the anxiety of an externally-driven change is that people fear they have no influence over what is happening and that the change will mean loss of control of their work situation. As a result, they want more participation and influence in the process and resistance may seem to be their only option.

How can I survive this and when will it end?

In the midst of a crisis and major change, people can feel that the upheaval will continue without end, threatening whatever boundaries and order they have established in their lives and their ability to fulfill personal commitments.

If these questions do not get answered, people often use resistance to get the answers.

Providing answers to questions–such as why the change is necessary, how people can influence what will happen, how this will be a time for learning, taking risks, and making mistakes, and what is the best estimate of how long the process will take–can help shift people’s focus from personal needs to the common good.

Resistance can also be… 

Resistance might be genuine and well thought out differences that need to be acknowledged, negotiated, and worked into the conversation. Some of the differences could include: A desire to avoid costly mistakes; concerns about undervaluing the customers; actions that seem unethical; and the dilemma of doing what is in the best interest of both the organization and the individuals involved (See Smollan, 2011).

People may be dealing with unresolved feelings stemming from a crisis event in the organization (e.g., a recent downsizing), or they are experiencing change exhaustion because there have been a series of critical re-organizations and/or shifts in what and how services are provided. They may also be experiencing increasing learning anxiety about how to achieve the change. They usually have ideas about how to deal with these situations, if asked.

People might begin to feel comfortable approaching change if they first argue about it and test it. That is just the way they do things in their team, department, etc. We need to trust the process, and the energy will refocus.

To engage the energy of resistance, we need to ask ourselves:

  • What are my objectives for the organization and the people involved?
  • What will help me achieve those objectives?
  • Am I focusing too much on the end goal and not paying attention to the process?
  • Am I reacting and judging rather than inquiring and working with people to achieve a mutual understanding of differences, concerns, and a doable process for the change?
  • Am I open to hearing how safe space can be created so people can deal with their learning anxiety and fear of failing?
  • Am I saying what I can about how the change will impact people’s positions in the organization?
  • Have I clearly articulated why this change is needed, its purpose, and its impact on the organization?
  • Have I designed ways for people to influence what will be happening; offered more than just a Q&A session?
  • Have I communicated as much information as is known about the time frame for the change?

We have a choice: We can judge others for resisting or engage and facilitate this energy that is important to achieving the change we want. Often, the change ends up being better than what we anticipated.

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About The Author

John D. Vogelsang, PhD, is the Editor in Chief of the OD Practitioner, the quarterly journal of the OD Network www.odnetwork.org. He has been working for over 34 years in the areas of leadership capacity building, board development, strategic planning, organizational and leadership transitions, conflict transformation, and strategic restructuring. He serves as a coach for executive directors, senior management teams, and boards, and he has facilitated numerous board and staff retreats and executive director peer learning groups. His clients have included foundations, human service agencies, mental health agencies, community health centers, universities, professional associations, arts organizations, and advocacy groups. He is the Dialogue Project Director for the Queens College/CUNY Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the American University MS program in Organization Development. For two years, he was a visiting professor of nonprofit and NGO management and organizational conflict at the School for International Training Graduate Institute.

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