Addressing resistance to change

I recently circulated John Beckford’s blog  challenging some of the ways in which organisations delay or avoid necessary changes.  I got positive feedback from several people but also this comment: “I think much more management consultancy needs to attend to delivery and some of the deeper resistances that lie within any one of us. The how-to seems critical”.  As I said to my correspondent at the time, that gives me a clear steer on the subject for my next blog.  Here is a link to John’s blog – I see my response to my reader’s comments very much as a companion piece:

So, for this blog we will assume that the organisational leadership has recognised the need to make a significant change but feels concern about the extent to which such a project will be supported or meet resistance from individuals and groups in the organisation, including, perhaps, those in leadership at the next level down in the hierarchy.  How should those leading change proceed?

We might start by recognising the ambivalent and painful relationship most of us have with the notion of change, even though it is constantly with us.  Here is something I wrote 15 years ago on the theme:

Change is a fact of life.  Nothing stays the same.  We ourselves are changing all the time: did you know that every cell in our bodies changes over a seven-year period? (1)  We are literally not the person we once were.

Our subjection to the forces of change and therefore to loss is perhaps the greatest source of poignancy in our lives.  It is one of the great themes of poets and writers.  Keats, for example, is intensely aware of the fragile nature of our condition.  All that is best in life is most vulnerable to time and change.  In Ode on a Grecian Urn he envies figures pictured on an ancient work of art captured in a moment of love “Forever warm and still to be enjoyed, Forever panting, and forever young”.  But it is not real and they are not alive.  Here is the pain of our existence: we cannot keep what we most desire.

Change threatens us.  There is a universal human tendency to find identity and security in things which are external to the core self and vulnerable to change – my job, my house, my car.  This is true to the extent that we may become attached and continue to cling even to things we know are harming us.  And so there are many reasons why we do not usually embrace change easily.  If the benefits are obvious we will choose it, perhaps enthusiastically, but even change for the good usually involves a difficult adjustment (getting divorced is a major cause of stress, but so is getting married!).

But on the other hand:

The paradox of change is that it threatens us but if we will not change we quickly become trapped, left behind.  It is in the nature of things that we cannot stand still, however much we want to.  A willingness to change is an absolute prerequisite of sustainable success:

“Bebop was about change, about evolution.  It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe.  If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.”  (Miles Davis)

This is as true of our personal lives as of our creative or economic endeavours.  A great deal of misery results from our tendency to cling to what we know.

We can conclude from this that change will never come easy. But we can make it easier, perhaps and strengthen both the organisational and personal capacity to manage it, and thus grow.  Here are some general principles for good leadership of change. At their heart is a recognition that it is the sense of loss of control that is, perhaps, most disturbing for most people caught up in change: it is essential to act in a way that allows people to feel as much control and “ownership” as possible, so that change is not being done to people, but done together.

  • Make sure people understand what is going on. There should be no mysteries and the default position should be to share as much information as you can.  You really cannot do too much of this. You will be amazed how long it takes for people to receive messages that seem crystal clear to you.
  • Inform and engage. People do not only need to know what is happening, they need to influence it. For this reason, it is not necessary to wait until you have complete plans before you share your thinking – in fact, it is better to give people something significant to contribute to the project.
  • Have a clear and compelling rationale for change. It is important to be able to demonstrate why staying the same is not a viable option.
  • Have a picture of the future. People need to be able to see how change will make things better – and, what’s more, how it will be possible to get there.
  • Acknowledge feelings. Do not expect people to change easily or deal with it quickly.  Most people will require a period of adjustment.
  • Acknowledge the past. For many change will be like mourning.  It will involve letting go of something they value.  Create or allow opportunities to acknowledge this.
  • Provide appropriate support. The capacity of the individual to deal with change will depend on their circumstances and personal psychology. The more vulnerable may need special attention.

It is worth noting that, however well you and your team do all this, there will still be some who cannot or will not change.  Do not waste time chasing lost causes, especially individuals who are holding the project up.  They may need to leave, or you may need to manage around them.

Now all this is well and good and the value of all these principles is borne out by the extensive literature making similar observations and by my own experience.  But there is another side to it which I think is less frequently commented upon.  Our relationship with organisational change is made much more difficult by the assumptions we bring to it and the way we view the task of management, assumptions which I suggest need to be challenged.  This brings us back to some of the themes of John’s blog.

How do organisations and their leaders conceive of change? There is a tendency to assume that the stable state is normal and that, from time to time, a regrettable need to change arises, which involves a painful destabilisation.  This negotiated, we can breathe a sigh of relief, and get back to ‘business as usual’.  If this was ever true, it is not how things are now.  Change is constant.  There will always, no doubt, be particular seasons of change and times of upheaval, but the task is to become good at changing all the time.

These ideas about change as the exception rather than the rule are reflected in the way that management conceives of its role.  Managers see business as usual as the real job, change as an extra, preferably something to be taken care of by a specialist in such matters.  These ideas are only reinforced by job descriptions that limit the role to a set of tasks that might be assumed to last indefinitely. But this is wrong.  Change is not an extra, it IS the day job.  Management involves balancing the claims of managing the present, creating the future and nurturing the identity that gives meaning to the whole enterprise, and creating the future is of necessity about change.

There is a further consideration, which concerns the basic relationship of leaders and managers to the organisation and the extent to which the individuals concerned identify with the organisation as such.  In many organisations, there is heavy reliance upon members whose basic loyalty may be more to a cause or to their personal vocation than to the organisation, a state of affairs frequently reinforced by the way in which key people are employed.  In extreme cases, this results in a situation where the organisation merely provides a perch from which the individual can pursue personal interests.  We see a version of this phenomenon in charities: the wildlife charity (for example) commands the loyalty of the enthusiast for tigers so long as tigers remain a priority for the charity.  We see it in religious organisations: there are many ministers who at least appear to believe that the first duty of the church is to facilitate their ministry.  It occurs in the private sector in, for example, professional partnerships (including consulting firms!).  In the NHS, senior doctors frequently take the view that Trusts and managers may come and go but that their skills will always be required and consequently remain detached from the concerns of the trust they work in.  Where people do not feel a strong stake in the organisation itself and/or have a high degree of professional or financial independence, it will be harder to overcome resistance to change (especially if that change challenges cherished personal commitments), and perhaps to engage some people at all.

There is no easy answer to this issue. All the aforementioned principles about managing change well and uncovering assumptions about the relationship of organisation to change apply, but there is an important additional step.  I take this to be the necessity of strengthening the basic relationship between the individual and the organisation.  I think this can be done by taking the individual and the organisation back to the basic questions of identity. Why are we here and why does it matter?  This can take the form of an organised conversation, one which fits well with another key principle, that we make sure any envisaged change is consistent with the essential identity of the organisation.  We may need to help individuals rekindle their sense of basic purpose and motivation (often somewhat obscured by a set of acquired professional habits of mind).  We need to build or reshape a common understanding of the organisation as a vehicle for achieving a common purpose, one that transcends the individual interest involved.  This might not work for everyone or in all situations but it gives you a good chance.

In this, as throughout the process of managing change, I am myself assuming that you will always act with integrity and conviction yourself – it really is the most fundamental requirement.


(1)    The brain changes over a much longer period

I have written more about managing change in my book:  

Elford, K. A., (2013) Creating the Future of the Church: a practical guide to addressing whole system change London, SPCK.  You can find more information about it here

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2 thoughts on “Addressing resistance to change

  1. Thank you Keith and John for your excellent insights on change. I just want to add a couple of thoughts from the perspective of a brand consultant (a frequently misunderstood title).

    I was struck by Keith’s comments towards the end of his blog about the need to re-connect people with their identity. This is very much the territory of brand. Not brand as logo, but brand as an expression of who we are, what we’re like, what has made us succeed, why we exist and what we stand for.

    It seems to me that much of what is written about change is essentially rational, whereas the most powerful brands have a strong emotional component. At its best, this can create a visceral connection with customers and employees. It can engender a degree of loyalty and commitment that often transcends the apparent appeal of the product or service concerned.

    In my experience of corporate branding, developing that emotional connection requires a combination of the kind of conversation Keith describes – around purpose, mission/vision, values, brand identity – and the kind of inspired creativity that is capable of taking communications to a new level.

    I have frequently seen clients sign up to the rational words that make up the definition of their brand, only to reach new heights of enthusiasm, understanding and commitment when they see it translated into an inspiring creative solution.

    Perhaps change managers need to embrace more of the dark arts of emotional branding if they are successfully to grab the hearts as well as the minds of their constituents and thereby enable a degree of commitment to change that transcends the norm?

  2. Thanks Geoff – and thank you for reminding us what the concept of brand is supposed to be about. When it comes to dealing with the future and the elements of change that go with that I talk about the need to find a way that allows the organisation to meet new challenges whilst retaining essential identity. As you’ve reminded us, this does require some creativity as well as a willingness to drop often quite cherished customs. It could be put as decision about how we are to develop, what we are to become – the creative solution – and I have found that frequently does have the kind of emotional resonance you describe.

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