The myth of resis­tance to change

October 9, 2019

We were all brought up with fairy tales that had hap­py end­ings – ‘and they lived hap­pi­ly ever after’. In the world of con­sult­ing, a fairy-tale end­ing is every client’s dream. In short, they all wish for pos­i­tive results that last for­ev­er. Is sus­tain­able change an impos­si­ble pipe dream? One of those con­cepts that we only hear about in myths and leg­ends? Or is it actu­al­ly achiev­able in reality?

Here we’ll take a look at what sus­tain­abil­i­ty real­ly means when it comes to change man­age­ment and the essen­tial ele­ments that need to be in place to make achiev­ing it a real­is­tic possibility.

What do we mean by sus­tain­abil­i­ty? The word ‘sus­tain’ comes from the old French verb ‘soustenir’ which in turn comes from the Latin ‘sustinere’, mean­ing to hold up, sup­port or endure. The term sus­tain­abil­i­ty is often used these days to refer to respon­si­bil­i­ty towards the envi­ron­ment and soci­ety, includ­ing while con­duct­ing business.

How­ev­er, in the are­na of change man­age­ment we see sus­tain­abil­i­ty as the final mile­stone of any suc­cess­ful project. This means suc­cess­ful adop­tion and con­tin­u­a­tion of the changes ini­ti­at­ed by the con­sult­ing team. Based on our learn­ings from 25 years of change man­age­ment, we’ll explain some of the cru­cial things to con­sid­er when work­ing to bring about last­ing change.

Resis­tance to change is most often tout­ed as the biggest bot­tle­neck in change man­age­ment projects. How­ev­er we have come to believe that this is a con­ve­nient car­pet that all fail­ures can be brushed under.

As human beings, we have been adopt­ing changes since time immemo­r­i­al. True to the Dar­win­ian prin­ci­ple of evo­lu­tion, humans make choic­es to adapt and inno­vate in order to sur­vive and thrive in our envi­ron­ment. Just as peo­ple have quick­ly embraced online shop­ping and smart­phones in recent years, employ­ees will read­i­ly adopt changes that they can see will ben­e­fit them.

So rather than resis­tance to change, the real issue is an inabil­i­ty to sell the change, to ensure employ­ees under­stand the rea­sons behind it and to make it rel­e­vant and mean­ing­ful to them.

The CEO of a com­pa­ny we were work­ing with recent­ly remarked, as we were plan­ning the project kick-off, that our pre­sen­ta­tion should address the ques­tion ‘What’s in it for me?’ for all employ­ees. He was exact­ly right.

Very often the goals of a change man­age­ment pro­gramme are deter­mined just by the pri­or­i­ties of the top man­age­ment and not enough thought is giv­en to what the change real­ly means to employ­ees down the line. How will it impact them? And what will it entail? Employ­ees often get jit­tery at the thought that changes might mean more work for them, force them out of their com­fort zones or make their inef­fi­cien­cies more visible.

While change pro­grammes can nev­er com­ply with the wish­es of all stake­hold­ers, if you want yours to suc­ceed, you need to fac­tor in how the lives of the peo­ple involved will change, then sell the plusses and pro­vide solu­tions for the minus­es. Only if your key team mem­bers are con­vinced that the changes will be good for them will there be real hope for sustainability.

Dur­ing one project we were keen to con­vince shop floor work­ers on the ben­e­fits of adopt­ing a new sys­tem for record­ing pro­duc­tion. We con­duct­ed an open ses­sion to gath­er feed­back about their exist­ing prob­lems on the shop floor. While we couldn’t do much about eight out of the ten issues raised, the action that we took on two of them con­vinced the work­ers that we and their man­agers cared about their needs. They then showed much greater will­ing­ness to start imple­ment­ing the changes.

Also: it’s not just oth­ers that need to change. Many man­agers believe that oth­er employ­ees, teams and depart­ments need to change but for­get that the change process has to start with them. As self-help author Mike Rob­bins reminds us, noth­ing changes until you do.

Denial that change needs to begin at the top can spark a cri­sis of lead­er­ship that can spin a change pro­gramme into a quag­mire of frus­tra­tion and hope­less­ness. When clients ask us what is the major cause of change pro­grammes fail­ing, I always reply that it’s a lack of com­mit­ment from the top man­age­ment. In our expe­ri­ence this is the sin­gle biggest fac­tor that can make or break any programme.

Employ­ees look to the lead­er­ship for vision and direc­tion and they are con­tin­u­ous­ly inter­pret­ing the behav­iour of their man­age­ment teams. Imag­ine a sit­u­a­tion where the CEO is harp­ing on about the mer­its of the changes required while the lead­er­ship team is seen to be con­tin­u­ing with old tem­plates of behav­iour. It is bound to send a mes­sage of dis­so­nance to the team below. Very soon, they will see through the chasm between speech and action and begin to doubt that any of the promised ben­e­fits will mate­ri­alise. It’s cru­cial to make sure the lead­er­ship team are ful­ly on board and aligned with the change pro­gramme. Only then can you actu­al­ly hope to start send­ing mes­sages down the line. Remem­ber, actions will always speak loud­er than words. Once the results start to become vis­i­ble, even the scep­tics will con­vert to your camp.

One more thing: we have all heard sto­ries of lead­ers hailed for lead­ing from the front and mar­shalling their troops to achieve suc­cess in their respec­tive are­nas. When you’re try­ing to bring about sus­tain­able change, you have to do the oppo­site and lead from the back. As Nel­son Man­dela once said, “Lead from the back and let oth­ers believe they are in front”.

The pro­gramme should be run by the team mem­bers for the ben­e­fit of the busi­ness as a whole. You have to let them take cred­it for the pos­i­tive results they achieve and encour­age deep intro­spec­tion into any fail­ures that hap­pen along the way. Earnest­ness and sin­cer­i­ty of pur­pose can make all the dif­fer­ence here. Achiev­ing sus­tain­able change is large­ly about peo­ple man­age­ment. Cru­cial ele­ments include:

• Mak­ing the change process par­tic­i­pa­tive and inclusive
• Pro­vid­ing train­ing, coach­ing and counselling
• Being avail­able and empa­thet­ic to the team while being true to the pro­gramme objec­tives, and
• Most cru­cial­ly, build­ing the belief that the pro­gramme is for the col­lec­tive suc­cess of the employ­ees and the organisation.

Slow and steady def­i­nite­ly wins the sus­tain­abil­i­ty race. But remem­ber, when the change is sus­tained, the impact remains.

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