Every textbook on organizational change has as a central tenet the idea of “resistance to change.” The premise is that people have a predisposition to resist change and it is the work of leaders and change agents to overcome this resistance. Unfortunately, this thinking has itself become a major obstacle to transforming organizations and it’s time to completely rethink our approach.
Kurt Lewin, the social psychology pioneer, first came up with the idea of resistance to change. For Lewin, however, resistance wasn’t specific to individuals. It was a broader, systemic phenomenon. Resistance to change could result from anything that impeded the change, including misaligned work processes, organizational structure, and/or rewards and recognition. Since Lewin first proposed the idea of resistance to change, it has been pared down to refer specifically to individuals’ psychological state.
At the same time, “resistance to change” has become an excuse to ignore employees’ concerns. If I, as a leader, can label your response ‘resistance,’ then I can largely disregard it. The problem shifts from the change I’m proposing to those who disagree with it. How convenient is that?
This the problem is that this mindset undermines change efforts for several reasons:
1. When employees feel their concerns are not given consideration, it ironically creates the very resistance organizations seek to overcome. Imagine if every time you raised a question or concern you were told your behavior was “resistant.” You would likely get resistant pretty darn quickly.
2. Leaders’ decision-making suffers. Employees, particularly those who must modify how they work for the change to succeed, are often well positioned to comment on the change. They have good ideas for how to improve on it and knowledge about what might go wrong. By assuming their feedback stems from resistance, leaders miss out on the chance to inform and improve the change.
3. Leaders lose the opportunity to build employee buy-in. When we take employees’ concerns and suggestions seriously and modify our plans accordingly, we generate employee ownership. In short, people own what they co-create. They are much more likely to alter their behavior in accordance with the change when they see their own perspective reflected in it.
So, in short, the best way to overcome resistance to change is to put the concept itself to bed. Alternatively, adopt the less combative, and more inclusive term ‘response to change.’ Instead of overcoming employees questions, concerns, goals, etc., try to incorporate them. This is not to suggest that organizations are democracies or that change processes should include everyone. But, while fewer is faster, it is not always better, particularly when transforming organizations.