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Change: Resistance or Readiness?


Change resistance is a human condition. We all experience it to some extent. Resistance is based on the level of disruption of change -- which is different for each individual. A change that creates a high disruption for one person may seem insignificant to another.

Change resistance shows up in a variety of different ways. Push-back is one way. Other examples are avoidance, delay and outright sabotage. While resistance can be logical -- based on a lack of information or understanding, resistance is primarily emotional -- rooted in feelings of fear, anxiety, or loss. One manager I know did not communicate an important process change for six months because he feared the reaction of his team. The manager perceived the change as a big disruption and didn't want to deal with the conflict. He knew the change was good and necessary, but the perceived disruption factor was too great.

People try to hide their emotional resistance by making logical arguments against change. I remember an engineering group that would take offense to particular words used to describe a change. We would be a half hour into a one-hour meeting and a hand would go up, still stuck on a word that was used in the first five minutes. The stalls were semi-intentional -- a tactic to slow the pace of change without directly opposing the change.

Change is highly personal. An individual's reaction to change depends on factors like prior experience, self-image, and the level of trust. The human ego has one job: to keep us safe. Change triggers a threat response, and resistance is how people protect themselves. Any workplace change can trigger the threat response, from work duties and rewards to organizational structure and status.

Readiness and resistance are close cousins in the change world. The key to building readiness is to study and embrace the human conditions that create resistance in ourselves and others. This is not an either-or situation as some suggest. Investing in readiness does not mean you won't spend any resources managing resistance later. But it should make managing resistance easier -- and less time-consuming. Like it or not, change is harder than we'd like, even when it's well-planned and communicated. Change happens at the speed of safety. The safer and easier the change, the fast it happens. But as we've seen, the definition of "safe & easy" varies from person to person.

Building change readiness is a process that we mistakenly treat as an event. Classes that teach the concepts of change resistance are one piece of the process. Leaders build (or erode) change readiness with everything they say or don't say, and everything they do or don't do. It's an ongoing process of self-awareness and re-thinking.

Think of change readiness as making change a way of life. For an individual, making change a way of life means losing the current concept of your self over and over again. For an organization, making change a way of life means embracing this idea at all levels of leadership. Living in this way is tough. It means doing the hard work of building self-awareness, examining what your own resistance is telling you about your values and the gaps in your character. In building your own resilience and readiness, you build your ability to help others do the same. Then we teach what we need to learn.

Most organizations take a "cross that bridge when we get to it" attitude about change. Rather than invest in building change readiness, and the effort that it takes to build self-awareness, we deal with it as needed. And we're willing to lose a few people along the way. The change -- and whatever goal the change is tied to -- becomes the focus, making it seem more important than the less measurable but longer-lasting internal work of character development. We set a "stretch" goal, but lose sight of what the stretch part is for.

"We are professionals at what we do, but amateurs at what we want to become." That's one of my favorite quotes from author and speaker, Derek Rydall. As a coach by profession, I also have a coach. My coach supports me in my own development, as I learn, apply, and live change as a way of life. Then I teach what I need to learn. And I learn by what I teach. Coaching is a structure for change; structure is a necessary part of making real change happen. It seems wrong to ask my clients to stretch if I'm not stretching, too. To me, the same applies to leaders. Seems wrong as a leader to ask others to stretch, to push themselves to achieve stretch goals, manage change, and be continuously improving if I, as a leader, am not leading by example.

Whether resistance or readiness, it starts with leadership. Everything does.

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Tuesday, 02 June 2020