We often hear that people don’t like to change. On one hand, everyone has a lot of stories about people resisting change and preserving the status quo. And yet, we’re talking about humans—a species that adapts to all sorts of environments: from deserts to subarctic, from remote settlements to gigantic cities, from mines that go miles underground to a space station. If we didn’t do very well with change we’d likely be extinct. We definitely we wouldn’t be ruling the world.
So what exactly is behind this so-called resistance to change?
“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”– Peter Senge
The first dimension we should look at is the source of the change. There’s a world of difference between changing ourselves when we have intrinsic motivation to do so and responding to change when it’s imposed on us.
We’ve all heard the story about the person who sells their possessions and moves to a remote place to become a Buddhist monk, or something equally outrageous. Given how huge these kinds of changes are, resistance should be impossible to overcome. Yet people continue to make these types of huge life transitions again and again.
And in the case of big life changes, there’s one constant fact: No one was forced to tear the old life apart by an external influence. The motivation to change was completely intrinsic.
Compare this to the types of changes we most commonly see in a professional context. What often happens is that a change is decided and then announced to teams (or imposed on them). This means people don’t have a chance to understand the reason, purpose or benefits of the change, and lack the process to internalize the idea behind the change (or get used to the fact that change is even coming). And the result: resistance.
There’s a well-known change model proposed by Virginia Satir that’s often dubbed the J-curve. What happens, reflected in the “J” shape, is that as soon as a change is introduced into the status quo, performance drops. As the change becomes integrated into a new normal, performance goes back up, and the new status quo is at an even higher level than before the change.
It’s in the low-point of the “J” where things get tricky. This is where, right after a change, we struggle to get used to new processes or shifts in job responsibilities that might make us feel less accomplished in our roles. Even if these growing pains lead to great skill advancements and process improvements, that temporary space of feeling clumsy around the office doesn’t feel good. And that’s what people resist—giving up that sense of expertise, even if it’s temporary.
Another important dimension to change resistance is considering how big the change is. Let’s look again at Virginia Satir’s J-curve change model. While the shape of the curve will look proportionately the same for both a small-scale change and a larger one, the larger change has a much bigger impact on productivity.
This also means that this lower productivity phase will last longer. Consequently, even when we decide to give change a try, it’s more likely that we’ll become impatient and abandon the new way.
Interestingly enough, most changes that are introduced into companies are big. We tend to roll out new methods, processes, organizational structures, etc. Of course, there’s some appeal in the approach of taking the whole, well-described package and implementing it across an organization. However, organizations don’t take into consideration—or prepare them teams for—the impact of the transition.
Each time we experience a failed attempt to introduce a change—it could be new project management software, a reorg, feature changes—we add it to a track record of all the changes that didn’t work. It might make us slightly less likely to try or accept something new the next time.
Of course, this isn’t a universal reaction. We all have different change thresholds, and the response to change has a lot to do with how risk-averse each person is.
When we’re talking about organizational changes, it’s fair to expect that a lot of employees are risk averse and are also sources of resistance. If you’ve ever worked with people who are immediately dismissive of any new idea or change because it “didn’t work,” it’s probably because they’re risk-averse and have seen some big change initiatives go south.
In his classic book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman says that most of us would rather be wrong than uncertain. In fact, our order of preference is:
- Being right
- Being wrong
- Being uncertain
What’s interesting about this is that being uncertain comes with the chance that you can end up being right. Being wrong doesn’t provide this option. Yet we still prefer any resolution, even a bad one, over no resolution.
How does this relate to change? The outcome of any change is uncertain. When we draw a J-curve it assumes a successful scenario and improvement in performance. But in practice, this is not the case. Some changes are helpful; others are not (even if they are successful).
And then, some changes don’t live long enough for us to be able to tell whether they were helpful or not in the first place. This introduces quite a lot of uncertainty.
Bottom line: We don’t like uncertainty. No wonder that resistance kicks in.
The answer: start small
None of these resistances provide good reasons to petrify an existing process and cease to introduce improvements to your team or organization. However, it’s good to understand why your team members might resist a change, anticipate all the scenarios and plan accordingly.
The best first step is to introduce small changes. There are two good reasons: First off, it improves the odds of experiencing a successful change and feeding that positive track record. Secondly, if the imposed change is a failure, the negative impact is shorter and you can move on quickly.
Another tactic is to create an environment where changes occur in an evolutionary manner. This helps internalize processes and makes change an inherent part of the culture—which is becoming increasingly crucial in a business environment where changes occur faster and faster. The pace at which the business world changes grows exponentially, which means it’s essential for individuals, teams, and organizations to be increasingly adaptable over time. But that’s another story to tell.