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When change is proposed, it’s important to unfreeze existing habits and patterns. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
When change is proposed, it’s important to unfreeze existing habits and patterns. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

MONDAY MORNING MANAGER

Embrace resistance to meet your change goals Add to ...

Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise-D in the Star Trek television and movie series, was famous for his phrase: “Make it so.”

But organizational change is not that easy, says Carol Beatty, a senior research fellow at the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre.

“Expect resistance. Expect more than you anticipate,” says Dr. Beatty, a former director of the Centre.

At a basic level, it boils down to a fundamental tension between the outlook of managers and their staff. The manager sees the disadvantages of the status quo and the advantages of change. But the people who change is “done to,” as she puts it, are focused on the advantages of the status quo and the risk to them with what is proposed. For them, it’s all about fear, uncertainty and disruption – not a golden opportunity.

In a free 202-page e-book available on the Centre’s web site, The Easy, Hard & Tough Work of Managing Change, Dr. Beatty – who was my co-author on a 2001 book on employee ownership in Canada – shares a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “The only person who likes change is a wet baby.”

That resistance was captured in the three-stage model popularized by organizational consultant William Bridges:

  • Ending, losing and letting go;
  • The neutral zone;
  • The new beginning.

When change is proposed, it’s important to unfreeze existing habits and patterns. But we don’t let go of the past easily. She points to Kodak, which knew digital photography was on the horizon and had the technological depth to respond. “They just couldn’t let go of their past and the future passed them by,” Dr. Beatty says in an interview.

In the neutral zone, people are in limbo between the old sense of identity and new. They have faced reality but still can’t really move ahead. They’re confused and uncertain. If trying new behaviours, they are unsure they have the ability to continue such activity long term. “They can easily slip back into the old ways of doing things. They need questions answered about the new habits and the things they now need to do,” she says.

In the new-beginning phase, the energy shifts dramatically to a positive commitment to making the change goals happen. Progress can be made and people feel good about the new patterns of behaviour. Managers must provide support and reinforcement, training and further opportunity.

To this model, she adds a pyramid reflecting the three categories of resistance, which offers another viewpoint on the problem:

  • Intellectual resistance, when people don’t get it;.
  • Next, personal resistance, when the individual doesn’t see what’s in it for them;
  • Finally, the toughest to handle, cultural resistance, as people feel it won’t work here.

Intellectual resistance is the easiest to deal with: You must explain the change in detail. “Be honest or you will lose the trust of employees and the game is over,” she cautions.

The most common way for communicating change initiatives to staff is e-mail, followed by briefings and newsletters. She says you need two-way interaction and communication, even if, as the Royal Bank has done, it’s big video forums with each branch. Staff are encouraged to ask questions. “They make sure people understand,” she notes.

With personal resistance, people are dealing with loss – of power, colleagues and familiar patterns of work. They need to know how you’ll help them. Sometimes there may be little you can do, as with job loss. The situation can be quite uncomfortable for managers, but she stresses “you can’t avoid it. You have to deal with it.” Keep in mind that staff will be inclined to believe you are playing favourites when choosing who stays or leaves. Make sure your process is objective and fair.

Cultural resistance can be subtle to pick up. Sometimes the culture is working against the change, as with Kodak, where everything was organized around film. Make sure your rewards encourage the cultural change you want, not the patterns you are trying to abandon.

Throughout, avoid coercion, the biggest mistake she feels managers make. They get impatient and don’t want to tackle the tough work of two-way communication. “They resort to coercion, which just gets people’s backs up and everyone focuses on the deficiencies of the managers rather than the change,” she says.

A second mistake is to ignore the resistance as you try to quickly “make it so.” That also fails. Resistance is inevitable. Expect it. Understand it. And deal with it, in a persistent, upbeat, non-judgmental way.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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