Last week I saw an interesting tweet about “resistance to change”

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Since “resistance to change” is one of my favourite topics, I had to chime in! Of course that prompted a whole bunch of responses:

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So what is resistance to change? There are enough change studies out there that cite resistance to change as the reason for why change initiatives fail.

The last four Version One State of Agile Development surveys cited ‘general resistance to change‘ as the #2 reason for why organizations fail to further adopt Agile. It was second only to “inability to change the corporate culture

Let’s start with how HR defines resistance to change:

Resistance to change appears in action such as verbal criticism, nitpicking details, failure to adopt, snide comments, sarcastic remarks, missed meetings, failed commitments, interminable arguments, lack of support verbally, and outright sabotage.

Resistance to change can intensify if employees feel that they have been involved in a series of changes that have had insufficient support to gain the anticipated results.

The problem I have with this definition is that it’s from the perspective of the person who is responsible for implementing the change. Suppose you, the change agent, were forced to use a change process you don’t believe in. How would you react? Would you be resistant?

In my view, change resistance is a symptom of a bigger problem. Namely, change agents are given a budget and a schedule to implement a change that management wants…regardless of whether or not it’s the right change to implement.

I don’t believe change resistance is a thing. I believe there is only lack of clarity and vision when a change is forced on people in an organization. Instead of focusing on how to involve people affected by the change into the design of the change, our attention focuses on those pesky resisters and how we can make them stop resisting.

Remember the symptoms of resistance from the article I mentioned earlier?

verbal criticism, nitpicking details, failure to adopt, snide comments, sarcastic remarks, missed meetings, failed commitments, interminable arguments, lack of support verbally, and outright sabotage

This is not change resistance. There are 3 things happening here:

  1. There is a lack of shared understanding about why this change is important: There is no framework or method that will solve this problem. Time and conversations are the only way to create this shared understanding. What’s that? You schedule these meetings and nobody shows up? That’s a good segue to #2.
  2. This isn’t the right change or the right time to implement it: The root cause of this problem is when the change team plans the change in isolation and then tries to unleash it on people. If people aren’t showing up for meetings or are making sarcastic comments, it’s the wrong change. Period.
  3. The people who live with the consequences of the change weren’t involved in the design of the change: I suppose you could throw outright sabotage into this bucket, although I’ve never seen someone deliberately try to sabotage a change. It usually stems from a lack of understanding or where the person who’s ‘being changed’ has a deeply held belief that this change is a bad idea.

In my view, change resistance is nothing more than a catch-all excuse for change agents to use when they have no idea why the change didn’t work. All they know is ‘those people‘ wouldn’t do what I (or the organization) wanted them to do, therefore they resisted change.

So after this long tweet-thread, I side with Mark and Karen. It’s the responsibility of the change agent to do something differently, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Words matter. Labelling people as ‘resisters’ isn’t helpful and it’s not going to help push our industry forward, especially given how fast things change today. Once we can get past this ridiculous label, we’ll be able to focus on what matters. Meaningful change.