Nope, Not Going to Do It: Overcoming Resistance to Change

By Dr. Deborah Orlowski, Senior Learning Specialist and the Program Manager for the Leading Change Practicum at Learning and Professional Development, University of Michigan

If the #1 fear of people is public speaking, I think the #2 is change.  Although some say they welcome it, in my experience, most people resist change, especially cultural or whole organizational change.

Living in the non-profit world, we know not only is change inevitable, but it’s often necessary. Soft money life demands agility to meet the requirements of grantors and clients. Universities or governmental entities move more slowly, but new laws or competition from unexpected sources (think MOOCs) can push massive cultural change. Our reality is we all need to become experts at leading change.

Change management is not project management. Project management is the nuts and bolts: who moves where, who does what, timelines, budget, etc. Change management includes project management and more; it begins with the change leaders asking themselves: who am I, what are my strengths and skills, who trusts me and who doesn’t, what is my reputation, where do I need others to “fill in” what I don’t have?  As one leader said to me, “If you don’t know that about yourself, you’re doomed to fail.  People will criticize you.  They will talk about you.  You need to be ready, and knowing who you are is how you get ready.”  If the change one is leading is a cultural change (becoming more diverse and inclusive or changing a funding model or client base, for example), knowing the answers is even more important.  People will consider you the moral center, the person who is expected to “walk the talk” every minute of every day.  When you understand where you need help and admit it, doing so creates a personal bond with those who are expected to “follow” and gives you room for minor missteps.

Generally, experts agree the following steps are essential for success:

  • Create a case for change
  • Identify and engage stakeholders
  • Share the vision for the change and the strategy for getting there
  • Expect and overcome obstacles
  • Implement and sustain the change

Meanwhile, constant, ongoing, continuous, “do we have to say this again” communication must occur.  Skip any of these steps, and you are heading for failure.

One disastrous failure I’ve seen occurred because the stakeholder step was skipped.  Leaders assumed that a compelling case for change, wide-spread sharing and a detailed plan for implementation were all they needed to successfully create a shared service center.  What they forgot was a comprehensive stakeholder analysis of who was going to be affected by this change, how, when and why.  By only getting input from administrators, they failed to see profound changes that only key (untapped) stakeholders would recognize.  The result was massive revolt, the change leader leaving for “better opportunities” and a hold on the project while the leaders backtracked to include the disenfranchised personnel.  Five years later, there are still pockets of deep mistrust, and new organizational initiatives are met with more than the usual skepticism. It would be easy to dismiss this as childish, but these responses aren’t entirely the fault of juvenile adults.  It’s the fault of our brains.

Our brains evolved to protect us and are always in “protect” mode.  Neuroscience shows human brains react the same way to physical attacks as they do to ambiguity, unfairness, control and status issues.  When we ask someone to modify who they include in meetings, change how they think about clients, or alter their behavior and language, our brains may see that as a threat.  We are moving them from a place of security (“I know how to ‘be.’”) to a place of ambiguity (“How am I supposed to think?”).  When we “change the rules” about how to measure competency (for example, where a candidate went to school), we create situations where the brain may feel “unfairness” (“What’s the criteria now?”). This is why deep cultural change is so difficult.  We are asking people to alter established organizational habits, fight their brains’ natural inclinations and create new neuropathways for thinking and acting, all at the same time. No wonder there is resistance!

Whatever change we are involved with, be mindful of both process and people, and remember planning and implementation take time. However, in the end, it is worth the investment.

Deborah Orlowski, Ph.D., is a Senior Learning Specialist and the Program Manager for the Leading Change Practicum at Learning and Professional Development, University of Michigan. She is a proud holder of an MPA from Eastern Michigan University.

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