Resistance to change is natural. What’s equally natural is that resistance makes you fear for the success of your well-intended change initiative. However, resistance to change does not destine you to fail. It is part of any change initiative as Peter Senge and colleagues have shown us with their decades spanning work. It’s captured in the seminal book The Fifth Discipline or in The Dance of Change. These study notes illustrate how resistance manifests itself at different stages of a change initiative..
As we’ve learnt from them, what matters is how you respond to resistance.
The good news is twofold: First, you hold the keys to unlock the doors of change resistance.
Second, leaders at all levels of your organisation can learn to work with the forces that generate or block change alike.
Let’s look at one important aspect of the resistance today: It often is neither visible nor noisy. So you believe that everything works according to plan as you sail through your meetings. Yet a while later, when you wish to see the change unfold as planned, it seems like none of these alignment and engagement meetings ever took place.
You may have overlooked something that happened right in front of your eyes. What you may not have seen were the people in the room who never raised their voice. You may even have wondered at the time what they thought, but you never did (dared?) ask.
And that’s a mistake. You need to be in dialogue.
You need to invite the quiet ones to raise their voice. You need to want to understand their concerns and reservations.
Now you’ve got something to work with. And a great process for working with resistance is called “Immunity to Change”. Immunity to Change plays out at a personal, a group, and a societal level.
What’s important is to first understand where the resistance comes from, or in other words what beliefs it rests on. To do so, you need to bring curiosity and compassion. And while both these words are easy to write, neither of them is easy to access when someone gets in your way. Because when that happens you want to defend your ideas, and your natural emotional response is impatience and judgment. And so the hardest thing to overcome may be your own tendency to judge when you feel judged.
Once you get curious and compassionate, people share the beliefs and fears with you. They tell you what leads them to put the breaks on change. That in turn allows you to address those fears. You avoid wasting time with reiterating your arguments so that they finally “get it”.
I always find our inner life a helpful analogy to the dynamics which play out at an organisational level. The reason is simple. You might not understand what’s happening in a group or another person. But no one understands the complex dynamics within you better than yourself. And that can be helpful to gain a broader perspective of what’s at play in your organisation.
So back to you: Think of an important change that you want to make. You may have endeavoured to make it for a while, but you keep failing at it. It’s not for a lack of motivation. You do see the benefits of the change! Weight loss and better fitness are two common goals that people fail at. But let’s stay in the context of the office:
Say you want to become better in delegating. You have too much on your plate and hanging on to all these tasks means you’re becoming less productive. It also means that you’ll fail as a team leader. You also have received the feedback that you won’t make a next career step if you don’t delegate more.
So part of you really wants to learn how to delegate. Yet even after a delegation skills seminar, you keep avoiding it. Here’s why: There is a second force within you. You’re afraid of losing your status as a great expert, who’s always on top of things. Or of losing control over the quality of output that your team produces. Or of something else. Whatever fear drives you, it is so strong that you don’t create the change you want, but protect what you have.
It’s not a skills problem, it’s resistance to change, driven by the fear of losing something. And that’s in your way of gaining something new, of growing to become a better leader. And to make the change, you need to work with the fear.
This basic tension of wanting to change and grow while also wanting to protect and avoid loss is human, as Robert Kegan and his colleagues show. And our shared humanity is the key to compassion. And that is the key to connection and working hand in hand, even if we do have different perspectives on reality.
So if you struggle with resistance to change, dare to look beneath the surface to get to the bottom of it.