Nov 5, 2012

Why Resist Change, When It Is Inevitable

Indeed, change is seldom a welcome proposition. U.S. radical activist, Saul Alinsky, hit the nail on the head, when he said - "Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict." This is particularly true in context of an organization. Yet, more often than not, organizational change initiatives are met with apprehension and resistance.

Hence, a large part of effective change management depends on how well people reactions to change are managed. As the driving force of the organisation, the CEO plays a significant role here - not only in visualizing a change, but also in preparing his people to embrace that change. His initiatives can go a long way to ensure that the change process not only helps the organisation to evolve but also enables its people to enrich and expand their frontiers of thinking.

There are two ways of going about a change process. You visualize and decide upon a change, you delegate the work it calls upon to your subordinates, they follow your dictates and the change is accomplished. OR you visualize a change, you carry people along in your vision and make them part of the thought process, you open their eyes to a whole new world of possibilities and then encourage them to ideate ways of engineering the change. In the second option, not only have you minimized the possibilities of resistance, but at the end of the day, you also have a people strength that is more involved, more satisfied and more capable of steering such change in future. The trick lies not in filling an empty bucket with water but in genuinely lighting a spark. And that is where the CEO can make a difference.

"Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better. '' - King Whitney, Jr.

Any change initiative can give rise to a gamut of reactions from resistance to disinterestedness to willingness to accept the change. Creation of a potentially better work environment, the thrill of being able to participate in something different and an expansion of the current set of opportunities can all aid in creating a positive response towards change. But the most common response to change, which is also the most harmful response, is that of resistance.

One of the causes of resistance lies in a very basic psychological fact. An external change demands an internal change, and while most of us can understand that in a world of uncertainty change is irrepressible, most of us hate to change our own selves to be able to respond to the change in circumstances.

Human beings have an immense capacity for perception and sensitivity. Think about it, you can smell a few drops of perfume across the entire house, you can feel that mosquito on you when it's still some distance away, and you can gauge emotions without words. Then why do we block our sensitivity and perception when it comes to accepting change. Why can't we see beyond boundaries and discern possibilities that most often, are meant to unlock the best in us? Why do we resist change intrinsically?

The reason could be that while change is inevitable, it is not always a conscious decision. Hence, while some may choose to be active participants in the change process, many may not. This concept is beautifully explained by Scott J. Simmerman's "Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly". Widely regarded as a useful management tool, Dr. Simmerman's initiative explains that while all caterpillars eventually turn into butterflies, much more radiant and beautiful than in their evolutionary phases, most are unaware of the coming change and he imagines, could be resistant too. Similarly, most people have a lot of latent potential that can propel them to take charge of a higher situation. But many may not be aware of the potential they possess. Hence, they are apprehensive of a change, which paradoxically may just bring out the best in them!

To understand another aspect of resistance to Change, consider these lines by Ted Forbes, The Darden School of Business:

"In the Change from being a caterpillar to becoming a butterfly, you're nothing more than a yellow, gooey sticky mess."

The words are suffused with deep meaning and they open the door to another probable reason why we resist Change - because we hate the discomfort of the transition process.

In the foreseeable future, change can also come as an end to a familiar way of operating. This gives rise to feelings of insecurity, apprehension, lack of trust in the management etc. These, in turn, induce the employees to resist change and reinforce the current situation. Visible changes such as absenteeism or stretching oneself abnormally may occur. While the former occurs as a reaction to seeing older colleagues quit in the face of a change, the latter results from an urgency to prove oneself in the given situation. Both ways, it shows how individuals become vulnerable in an atmosphere of change. People may draw away from each other and become self defensive and protective, all this stemming from a feeling of insecurity, and directed towards retaining their own jobs. A sudden change situation may also see a loss of important workers and hence may result in critical vacancies that need to be filled up as soon as possible, to ensure smooth running of business. Already existing grudges regarding unfair pay, overload of work or bad working relationships can lead to a stressful change environment, compounding negative attitudes of resistance to change.

When a change is announced, employees are generally seen to go through a phase of non acceptance or shock. They may become concerned about their jobs, expectations, hours of work, pay etc. Gradually, as the change sets in, there is a feeling of anger, resentment or sadness - an environment that is often heavily detrimental productivity and efficiency. However, once the change becomes part of the system over a period of time, most people learn to accept and adapt themselves to the changed circumstances, but for those who still can't, a one-to-one interaction with the manager or a mentoring session may help.

Some research results in the area indicate that resistance to organisational Change initiatives can manifest itself in several forms from passivity or indifference to non cooperation in revealing information crucial to data collection phase of the Change process to strikes or violence. In order to effectively handle such reactions, it is also important to understand whether the mass of people is resistant to the type of Change being introduced or whether they are reacting against the way in which the Change is being introduced. Understanding this enables the Change agent to deal with the resistance accordingly.

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