Why are leaders surprised when people resist change?

From Jonathan’s piece on change and banana skins:

Change is constant. – we are constantly amazed when we work with companies and businesses about their resistance to change.

Really? I’m not.

What does constantly amaze me is that people, especially senior managers, business academics and consultants, continue to be surprised by resistance to change and treat it as somehow pathological.

Let’s start with the baseline. In many companies, a considerable number of employees feel disengaged. Countless studies have shown that anywhere between 38% to 80% of employees lack commitment to their jobs and are unwilling to go the extra mile to help the organisation succeed. And that’s before you’ve even announced any changes.

Against this background, is it any wonder that, when change is proposed, it is often met with cynicism and scepticism? I would be more surprised if the announcement of a change programme got the positive whooping reaction that senior managers often seem to think it deserves. I’d wonder if the workforce had been drugged.

Quite often, change driven by senior managers is not in the best interests of many workers. Try telling HBOS employees in Halifax that the merger with Lloyds makes sense. OK, perhaps that is an extreme example but, if there is a threat to your job or your position within the organisation, opposition to change is not irrational at all. It makes perfect sense.

So why are senior managers themselves often resistant to change too? Sometimes for the same reasons as those further down the hierarchy. Even senior people can feel threatened and disengaged. But there is also the sheer effort involved in pushing change through.

It often takes more than rational argument to convince people of the need to change, especially when the threats that come from not changing are a long way of.

A couple of weeks ago, my doctor gently suggested I should lose around 12lbs. He proved it with data about my ideal height/weight ratio and a blood test which showed my cholesterol level creeping up, although still within safe limits for now.

I know he’s right too. But last week, when a former colleague suggested we have a steak-and-ale pie and several pints in the pub, I went for it as usual. The same a couple of days later when a friend suggested a curry. This morning it was lashing down with rain in London so I skipped going to the gym. I know I need to lose weight and that, one day, I will pay for it if I don’t but….well…at the moment, there’s just too much else going on.

So it is with corporate change. Unless the barbarians are at the gate, it’s all too tempting to put change off until a later date.

In most cases, the barbarians are not at the gate, although I think we may see a few more of them in the next year or so. Advocates of change in organisations need to understand that they are in for a hard fight and that winning hearts and minds will not be easy.

Resistance to change is inevitable and, in most cases, understandable. If you start from that assumption, you are more likely to succeed than if you dismiss the resisters as deviants, fools or rogues.

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7 Responses to Why are leaders surprised when people resist change?

  1. CherryPie says:

    A way to get less resistance to changes is to get buy in from involved parties.

  2. jameshigham says:

    Unless the barbarians are at the gate, it’s all too tempting to put change off until a later date.

    I think they’re very much at the gate at the moment.

  3. jonathan says:

    Maybe I have come across more than my share of luddites then?

    Maybe I should have also added that I was talking about change for the better rather than change for the sake of it.

    I agree that people don’t do anything unless they are faced with immediate painful consequences (like you Rick when you are taken ill)

    Leaving aside the HBOS macro level stuff (and lets face it, who knows where that is all going to end), lets say I go to a company who make widgets since the factory started in 1927.

    But the Chinese & Indians are pretty good at widget making now.

    Do we adopt the little englander mentallity and say,

    “Well, we are the best, been doing it for years so no need to worry”
    Never mind that our procedures rely on people remembering stuff in their heads where the Chinese have got computers doing that – we are much more experienced and in any case, computers always break down”

    or do we do as a friend of mine who is a contact centre manager has done and say to staff

    “listen folks, Forget doing it as we always have done, if we don’t do our job efficient and to the best of our ability all day & ever day, some nice people in Bangladesh will do. So if you’ve got any bright ideas, lets have them.”

  4. Rick says:

    Actually, Jonathan, I wan’t taken ill, I just took advantage of these checkups they were doing and found myself being given a gentle ticking off when the results came through.

    You can give people all sorts of reasons why they need to change but reason often isn’t enough on its own. Even threatening them with the Chinese and Indians doesn’t work if the Chinese and Indians are far enough away. Often, it’s only when the imports flood in and the market collapses that people sit up and take notice.

    More often than not, though, the threats are slow and creeping, and, like Charles Handy’s frog, people don’t notice that the water is heating up until it is too late.

  5. jonathan says:

    Glad you weren’t taken ill – (fancy a curry and a few beers?)

  6. Rick says:

    Sounds like a damned fine idea. Are you London based?

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