Resistance to Change Reconsidered

The literature on planned change emphasizes the tendencies of individuals, groups, organizations and societies to resist change. This inclination is usually cited when change efforts fail. However, resistance to change is not an inherited human characteristic. In fact human beings have a predilection both to seek change and to reject it.

The tendency of human beings to resist change is more accurately described as resistance to being changed, and resistance to the agents of change. Involvement and control of the change process is a remedy for this affliction. However, even with involvement, some resistance to change will likely exist. Reducing this resistance and building support can be aided by understanding the other factors involved.

In addition to lack of involvement, resistance to change is influenced by three interrelated variables described by Richard Beckhard (Changing the Essence, Jossey-Bass, 1992),  in the change formula:

Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps > Resistance to Change

Where:

  • D = Dissatisfaction with the present situation,
  • V = Positive picture of what is possible in the future, and
  • F = Achievable first steps people can take toward reaching the vision,
  • R= Resistance to change.

 If D, V, or F are zero, or near zero, the product of the three will also be zero, or near zero. Therefore, natural, normal and ever-present resistance to change will not be overcome.

Some organizations have a well-developed sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are that permeates the thinking and actions of its members, but have no vision or first steps in place. In this situation people say, “We know what’s wrong, but we do not know what better looks like (V), or how to get there (F).” In these organizations there are frustrated people complaining and venting about what’s wrong in the bathrooms, at the drinking fountains, and outside of break rooms. Over time, apathy, low morale, and inertia replace this complaining.

Other organizations have built solid agreement among a critical mass of people about their dissatisfaction and first steps but do not have a clear, articulated vision to guide the organization’s future direction. These organizations often fall into the trap of trying to solve their problems (addressing D) by implementing each new management fad as the truth, the light and the way. People who work in these organizations lament the “flavor of the month” mentality that drives their change efforts. There is a tendency to “hunker down” to wait out the latest and greatest change technique being tried out on them.

Perhaps the most frustrating scenario is to be in an organization where there is a common and shared dissatisfaction with the status quo, an exciting vision of a desirable future, but no collectively agreed-upon set of first steps in place to being moving toward the future. This set of dynamics often leads to false starts, disjointed initiatives, infighting, and the emergence of informal leaders. Confidence in the hierarchy is quickly eroded and people try things in isolation bent on doing something – anything—instead of giving up altogether.

Organizations sometimes adopt a vision and a master plan. This is usually a top-down initiative, based on dissatisfaction as seen only from the top tier of management. Even in cases in which the vision and the plan are successfully sold down the line, the lack of shared dissatisfaction can result in a narrow interpretation of the vision and action, which are than poorly aligned across the organization. This is because the driving force of dissatisfaction is seen from many different parochial perspectives which are never pooled or reconciled. Almost all action that ensues in this scenario is at cross-purposes because so many people know so little about the total organizational picture of reality.

When a critical mass of people in an organization builds a common understanding and agreement across all three of these elements, a paradigm shift occurs. People acknowledge their current reality, but are not mired in it. They create an image of a preferred and possible future reality worth working towards in a collaborative effort. They also see a clear path of actions they can take immediately that will enable them to begin moving towards their vision. The frustration, isolation and inertia they had previously experienced are replaced with excitement, a sense of community and momentum for change. Although their external reality remains the same, their internal experience of that reality shifts dramatically and almost instantaneously.

© Robert E. McCarthy, McCarthy & Company, Organization Consultants, Inc.