Summary: Resistance to change is common and natural. Should we try to overcome it or do we just accept resistance and let things stay the same? If we decide to deal with resistance to change, how do we deal with it? How does joint problem solving help us? This brief article will offer some observations on the source of resistance to change and summarize how a JPS strategy helps us to deal with resistance to change.
What are the sources of resistance to change?
Resistance to change is normal. Human beings, in general, resist change. Change requires effort. It takes us out of our comfort zones and requires us to deal with new situations and new ways of doing things. So unless we deal with resistance to change – rational, practical and motivational – change in human and organizational behaviour is unlikely to happen.
Rational resistance: It is difficult to separate rational, practical and motivational since the human brain, with or without our permission, deals with all three at once. The rational is to do with having a sound argument and sound evidence for a proposed change. For example, if there is a problem, there needs to be a solution which deals with the problem, evidence that the problem exists and evidence that the solution works. If we have done our research on the facts of the situation and produced evidence that a particular course of action will deal with the situation, then we are partly (only partly) on the road to dealing with resistance to change. The inserted diagram outlines the quality of the rational case for a proposal where the evidence and argument are understood and believed, but there is poor tangible evidence that it works. The whole case will be seen as too theoretical. Others have to believe and understand both the argument and evidence and see, touch, and grasp the evidence with their senses – take them there and show them.
Practical resistance: Another source of resistance to change is the perceived impracticality of the proposal. The proposal may seem very rational and tangible, but there can still be doubt whether it will work in the normal day-to-day organizational context. In my own work, I have become increasingly aware of the practical limitations of many good ideas and excellent proposals which are difficult to convert to concrete application in the hurly-burly of everyday life or work. Practical trials or examples from elsewhere are never as good as evidence that it will work in our own lives and in our own work or life context. Do we have the skills, the time and the resources to make it work here in our own lives and context? I was listening to a sermon the other day around a question Jesus put to his disciples: “Who do you say I am”, he asked. There are lots of answers given to this question – a prophet, a great teacher, a healer, a ruler. Peter gave the correct answer, “The Messiah, the Son of God”. But his behaviour shortly thereafter showed it was difficult for Peter to convert this conceptual declaration into concrete and practical action when he denied any association with Jesus (happily, later on, his theoretical or conceptual answer was converted into practical action). Concepts are easy. Practical application can be very different and difficult. The inserted chart illustrates a situation where the proposed changes were going to hit the particular barrier of insufficient time to get it to work back on the job.
Motivational resistance: Motivational resistance is the most complex and difficult aspect of resistance to change. Dealing with it requires sensitivity, empathy and emotional intelligence. The biggest challenge is probably the likelihood that what people say is not always what they are feeling inside. A Yes may be a polite and politically correct response but have nothing to do with the internal emotions and feelings of the person. This is a particular problem in a political and power-driven organization where the price of stepping out of line is too big a price to pay. The threat can lead to defensiveness, aggression or conformity. The power of group or organizational pressures plays a major role in influencing how we deal with our emotions and express our feelings. Effective leaders and managers of change will detect whether they are encountering defensiveness, aggression, conformity or genuine agreement, and adjust their plans accordingly. The inserted diagram illustrates an example where there were particular barriers affecting the material welfare, fairness, autonomy and competency of the others involved. Unless the proposed changes or solutions will deal with these barriers there will be serious resistance to change among those affected. We may get conformity in the short term but those affected may undermine implementation – subversively or outwardly – if they can get away with it.
How does JPS help to deal with resistance to change?
In a highly bureaucratic, authoritarian or political organization, joint problem solving may be completely inappropriate as a strategy for overcoming resistance to change. Having said this, we also need to bear in mind that there is firm evidence that engaging other stakeholders in change through strategies like joint problem solving, is significantly correlated with the sustained long-term growth and performance of an organization.
- A JPS strategy takes rational resistance seriously by making sure that those affected by the change are aware of the evidence and argument for change. If we can’t get others ‘on board’ in accepting there is a valid Situation at hand, for which there is sound argument and evidence, there will be little desire to change. People won’t believe the building is on fire until they smell the smoke or see the fire at hand, or have conclusive evidence it is going to happen.
- JPS offers rational and practical Tools to tackle Situations. Instead of coming up with a proposed solution, it offers rational and practical questions to help those involved find a solution to task and people problems. The key rational and practical questions offered by these Tools open up our horizons for better understanding and successful action.
- JPS deliberately tunes into Others and their Readiness, taking rational, practical and motivational issues into account. The initial definition of the Situation requiring attention has to be framed in a way which is rational, practical and is sensitive to motivational Checking how well others are affected by the 18 points in these three diagrams will help to define the Situation in a language which gets through to them, and helps us to adapt our to approach them and how to relate to them.
- JPS requires a deliberate Plan for involving others which tunes into the rational, practical and motivational At each stage of the Plan for involvement, before we launch into Implementation, we consider the key questions: Will this be seen as rational, practical and motivational by the Other stakeholders involved?.
- JPS only launches us into action after we have understood the Situation, the Tools to help us, the Others involved, their Readiness and the Plan for involvement. At the final stage of Implementing, we continue to apply our rational, practical and motivational barometers in picking up resistance to change. A careless word, a hostile interruption, excessive use of control, exclusion of key people, a disregarding of emotions with an over emphasis on the rational and practical can scupper the best interventions for change.