The Need to Change – and the Need to Stay the Same

More and more businesses have come to accept that continual change is the name of the game they must play.  But resistance to change is the nemesis that dogs them every step of the way.

Whether the company is a Fortune 100 colossus or a modest not-for-profit, a family business or a professional organization, the problem is that people fear change, resist it, fight it and often end up sabotaging what they might even consciously agree are a good means to move things forward.

Mitchell Lee Marks, a professor of management at San Francisco State College of Business, gave some good advice on the problem in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.  He noted that it’s important to work at it on two fronts:  weaken the support that employees give to the old ways of working by demonstrating their failures, and, also, provide a clearly detailed account of the new plans that will replace them.  But, throughout, he stresses that empathy is required on the part of bosses in communicating their ideas.

“Employees are more likely to hang on to the fear, uncertainty, resentment and other emotions that big changes bring if it seems to them that management has no clue about how they feel.”  (See, “In With the New.”)

Yes, but I would add that there are also unconscious resistances to change that employees themselves cannot easily articulate.  Leaders can demonstrate real curiosity about understanding the whole picture employees face in adapting to change, the resistances they don’t even know they have.  Employees may not want to have the doubts and worries they do, or they might just feel vaguely uneasy about what is being proposed; they may fear expressing their resentment; perhaps they are not aware of feeing threatened by change – before it happens.  It doesn’t matter:  they have those feelings and they will be enacted, even when they cannot be stated clearly.

So, the dilemma for the leader trying to plan for change is to bring those feelings and thoughts out into the open where they can be addressed.

But it is also important to confront the resistances when they occur.  Meetings that are missed, deadlines that pass, messages not delivered, agreements forgotten – these are all signs of unconscious resistance.  Often they will be explained away and dismissed, especially by a leader who would prefer to believe that everything is on track.  But the astute leader takes them for what they are:  covert opposition.

It is extremely important to respond to those events when they occur.  Being punitive or forcing employees to admit their unconscious motives is generally not helpful.  But a response that acknowledges the impact of such events on the changes being planned can make a big difference.

What we don’t know we know is how such little incidents presage larger failures.