Sometime in the late 1940’s someone wrote a paper entitled ‘Overcoming Resistance to Change’ (1). Even though the word resistance was only mentioned in the beginning and once at the end, this expression became so compelling that it has become a mainstay in management books for ever after. It is still very much alive and in my experience, acting as a road block to effective change. We have all experienced ‘resistance to change’ in fact ‘we are all, at times, resistors as well as instigators of change’ (2)

However, the use of this term (not as the original authors meant it) has become a short cut for poor change-related practice. If there is resistance to change, it follows we must do what we can to get rid of resistance. It encourages belief that it is workers who are resistant and that managers need to ensure employees comply with the change. But compliance is not commitment.

Does this story sound familiar to you?

A recent client had embarked on a change programme, and we were engaged to recruit and train a team of 20 internal change makers from across the organisation and from all levels below the senior management team. Their role as Change Makers was to be the eyes and ears to identify resistance and understand the underlying causes. They also were prepared to create Strategy Pods (small working groups) to help create sustainable change in several areas of the organisation. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They were prepared to make the organisation the best it could be by making it more customer focused and leaner.

And then there was an unexpected change of leadership team members including the CEO.

It is not for us here to examine the rights and wrongs of the new leadership stance – what is a logical path for the executive to plan to get from A to B may be perfectly clear to them, but the rest of the organisation may not be clear about what or where B is let alone how to get there. The impact was the Change Makers felt out of the loop and undervalued. They felt any change was now again in the hands of senior management. The resulting ‘resistance’ was the consequence not the cause.

Our experience is that assuming ‘resistance to change’ is not helpful in a change programme. Not to say there will not be resistance in some quarters but it is the causes of this resistance that exposes what will help the desired change to be effective and sustainable. Change is not something that can be done to people it is something they must participate in. It can be hard for managers to understand change from the employees perspective and just as hard to understand their own investment in maintaining the status quo.

So, when I hear the term ‘resistance to change’ I am mindful that resistance is an effect and not a cause. The trigger may be somewhere in the system. Some good practices like communication, engagement and understanding what have been the unwritten rules and customs that are threatened will go some way to mitigating these. Having well prepared Change Makers on the ground, throughout the organisation, will help identify other hidden causes of resistance helping to make change successful and sustainable.

Contact Nicky Carew at [email protected]

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(1) Overcoming Resistance to Change by Coch and French (1948).

(2) Lawrence, P. R. (1954). How to deal with resistance to change. Harvard Business Review, In a postscript 15 years later