One of the greatest challenges for change leaders is dealing with resistance. The fact is most people don’t like change because change means uncertainty and uncertainty creates anxiety and risk, including the risk of failure. But I believe the real problem for many of us who are responsible for leading change in organizations is that we ignore why people generally don’t like change. Instead of addressing it in a constructive way, we communicate and act in ways that create full blown resistance from many instead of dealing with true resistance from a few employees.
Let me explain. As someone who has been involved in leading change for over 20 years, this fact was brought home to me very clearly a number of years ago by Douglas K. Smith in his book “Taking Charge of Change – 10 Principles for Managing People and Performance”. In it, he contends that most people in any organization – 70%-80% – are not resistant to change, but rather they are “reluctant” to change because they are uncertain and anxious about what lies ahead. Unfortunately, he explains, many change leaders confuse reluctance with resistance and then act in ways that turn reluctance into hardened resistance. Smith contends that “far too many leaders use resistance as an excuse for their own failure to understand and reach out to people who, like the leaders themselves, are naturally reluctant to change”.
When I read this passage more than 13 years ago, I came to the realization that I was one of those “leaders” Douglas K. Smith was talking about. As I reflected on my past actions as a change leader, I acknowledged that I had at times, early on in a change process labelled people as “resistant”. While taking this position made it easy for me to transfer responsibility and blame to “others”, it also led me to act in ways that made the process of leading change much more challenging, (especially if those “resistors” were in positions of influence).
Douglas K. Smith has caused me to alter my approach to leading change. I accept as the starting point that most people, including some leaders are “reluctant” to change and it is my role to transform their reluctance into readiness. If you truly accept that most people at the outset of a change are “reluctant”, then I believe this places much greater responsibility and accountability on change leaders to communicate and act proactively. It becomes the responsibility of change leaders to: build awareness of why the change is necessary, inspire people to participate, grow their knowledge about the change and understanding about what they must do to be successful after the change.
Let me be clear, taking this position as a change leader does not absolve individuals of their own accountability and responsibility to change. Nor does it ignore the fact that in most organizations about 10% of employees are truly resistant to change. At some point, every individual must take personal responsibility for her/his change and performance or face the consequences. However, from my own experience, too often leaders expect people to “get it” quickly when in fact we know from the psychology of change that it takes time for people to hear, absorb, understand and change. Change is truly a process. And the change process calls for not only very deliberate and proactive communication and action on the part of leaders, but also patience – which is what I refer to as Strategic Patience.
President, Change Management Professionals Inc.