As I’ve been going through articles and books for the course on Analytics and Leading Change that I’ll be teaching soon at Columbia University, I frequently read how leaders and other change agents need to overcome resistance to change. Whenever we aim to get things done and they don’t happen immediately, this is often the first explanation for the difficulty.
Resistance to change is a frequent complaint of anyone introducing a new technology or especially something as fundamental as the use of analytics in an organization.
The conflict that it implies can be compelling. You could make a best seller or popular movie out of that conflict, like that great story about baseball, analytics and change “Moneyball”.
There have been cartoons and skits about resistance to change — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTLyXamRvk4
This is an idea that goes very far back. Even Machiavelli, describing Renaissance politics, is often quoted on the subject:
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”
It’s all awful if you’re the one trying to introduce the change and many have written about the problems they saw.
But is that word “resistance” misleading change agents? Going beyond the perspectives and anecdotes of change agents and business consultants, there has been over the last two decades some solid academic research on this subject. And, as often happens when we learn more, there have been some important subtleties lost in that phrase “resistance to change”.
In perhaps a refutation or an elaboration on Machiavelli’s famous quote, Dent and Goldberg report in “Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’” that:
“People do not resist change, per se. People may resist loss of status, loss of pay, or loss of comfort, but these are not the same as resisting change … Employees may resist the unknown, being dictated to, or management ideas that do not seem feasible from the employees’ standpoint. However, in our research, we have found few or no instances of employees resisting change … The belief that people do resist change causes all kinds of unproductive actions within organizations.”
Is what looks like resistance something more or something else?
More recently, University of Montreal Professor Céline Bareil wrote about the “Two Paradigms about Resistance to Change” in which she compared “the enemy of change” (traditional paradigm) to “a resource” (modern paradigm). She noted that:
“Instead of being interpreted as a threat, and the enemy of change, resistance to change can also be considered as a resource, and even a type of commitment on the part of change recipients.”
Making this shift in perspective is likely harder for change agents than the changes they expect of others. The three authors of “Resistance to Change: The Rest of the Story” describe the various ways that change agents themselves have biased perceptions. They say that blaming difficulties on resistance to change may be a self-serving and “potentially self-fulfilling label, given by change agents attempting to make sense of change recipients’ reactions to change initiatives, rather than a literal description of an objective reality.”
Indeed, they observe that the actions of change agents may not be merely unsuccessful, but counter-productive.
“Change agents may contribute to the occurrence of the very reactions they label as resistance through their own actions and inactions, such as communications breakdowns, the breach of agreements and failure to restore trust” as well as not listening to what is being said and learning from it.
There is, of course, a lot more to this story, which you can start to get into by looking at some of the links in this post. But hopefully this post has offered enough to encourage those of us who are leading change to take a step back, look at the situation differently and thus be able to succeed.
© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved