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Finding the real reasons behind resistance to change

Direct Line Group, DoncasterPicture by Vicky Matthers iconphotomedia
Logic can be hard work in the face of change.  Picture by Vicky Matthers iconphotomedia

Most resistance to change comes with detailed logical explanation.  That’s because modern business etiquette does not permit simply saying petulantly, “No, I don’t want to”.  Resistance has to be evidence-based, rational and considered.  

In my experience, a great deal of resistance is in fact not logically-based.  Instead, it is a resistance based on the emotional investment that an individual has in the status quo.  I’ve seen resistance arise because change is perceived to be challenging an individual’s intelligence, commitment, professionalism – or even challenging that person’s identity.  But of course, it’s never voiced as that.  Instead, it’s cloaked in rational “good reasons”, handy old standbys like budget, lack of business preparedness, cost of downtime or customer service interruption. And you can’t argue with those, can you?

So to avoid coming up against death-by-logic, I’d recommend a handful of perspectives and techniques.   These help identify emotional investment early; and then work with it, round it or through it to avoid resistance setting in.  

Change as criticism.  Many people – particularly people well-established in their role – will subliminally view any suggestion of change as criticism.  By proposing to do something differently, you are by implication criticising how it has been done before.  You are also potentially thought to be attacking the owner for failing to identify the need for change.  This can be perceived as an assault on that person’s analytical skills, strategic capabilities or dynamism.  It’s often viewed as the emotional equivalent of taking off your jacket and handing it to your friend…  

Interestingly, people in this position often fail to recognise that their discomfort is emotionally-based.  They do not acknowledge their feelings are hurt by the suggestion of change – they simply believe their intelligence has been insulted.  So they assert their intelligence with five thousand megawatts of logic, to put you back in your box.

One effective path through this is to express the proposed change as one which acknowledges or anticipates a) future requirements; and b) a changing context.  So the angle is to say that we’re changing in order to accommodate what’s going to happen.  What we have now was, of course, entirely suitable for the previous context in which we operated – but imminent external factors also mean we now have to respond differently.  
This future- and external-orientation make it easier for the established owner to get on the bus.  This individual can take ownership of the change without imagining there’s been a loss of face, because the newcomer isn’t saying the old ways are wrong: it’s just that the world is changing.  

Make time to listen.  The best clues come within the longest conversations.  So it’s worth making time to really understand your key decision-makers.  

Give the other person plenty of time to talk about their views of the situation.  Draw them out.  Listen very carefully to what they’re saying, without adding your own opinions or showing-off with your quick solutions.  

The longer you listen, the more likely you are to understand what this person’s emotional-investment really looks like.  This often comes in the anecdotes and asides.  So when the CEO just happens to mention fondly that her rise through the ranks really started when she was one of the first people to welcome the firm’s new ERP system in 1992, then you have a very valuable clue.  You know that her self-image is tied-up with both the old system; and with early-adoption.  So you’re going to need to be nice about the former if you want her to do the latter.

The voices in your head. Finally, never forget that you’re just as emotionally-invested as everyone else.  Rejection of your proposal will strike at your self-image, too.  

And when that happens, you’ll be bound by modern business etiquette.  You won’t be permitted to visibly throw a tantrum and flounce out.  However, you may well still do that – it’ll just happen inside your head.   The voices in your head will rail loudly against the injustice and illogic of the decision.  

While that’s happening, the noise will drown-out the real world.  Your quality of listening will be extremely low.  So, whenever you go to hear a decision, try to take someone with you who cares an awful lot less about this than you do.  That person can be briefed to listen for the supporting arguments, in case you miss them.  So then you can always come back later with Plan B when you’ve got over yourself…

About the author:

Sue Bilton is a communications consultant who advises organisations and individuals.  She has over 30 years’ experience of internal and external communications’ strategy and practice, having worked in both corporate marketing and as an independent consultant.  www.sauvignon-blanc-communications.co.uk

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About Susan Bilton 1 Articles
Susan Bilton has a background in marketing communications with some of the UK's leading organisations. She has been coaching since 1997. She is particularly interested in coaching that helps people build their self-confidence, clarify their thinking, and take important decisions. Susan also enjoys facilitation and developing strategies.
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