People Just Naturally Resist Change, Right?

Not so fast. What many people fear about organizational change is loss.

I have a client who’s a real challenge. She is the director of a medium-size nonprofit with about 15 full-time staff, 30 part-timers and dozens of committed volunteers. She’s smart, passionate about the organization’s mission, and cares about the people they serve. She has made many improvements during her 15-plus years of leading the organization. Unfortunately, many of her accomplishments are lost on the staff and volunteers because they can’t get past their perception that she is allergic to any and all change.

When I ask the staff and volunteers why they see her that way, they make comments like:

• “She gets surprisingly defensive when we talk about a different way to manage a program. We never criticize her, but she takes our suggestions as personal attacks.”

• “Whenever I bring up a new idea, her first (and second and third) reactions are routinely negative.”

• “When she sees us working on an innovation, she asks so many questions and demands we do so much research on it that we finally just let it go. It’s not worth the hassle.”

You get the idea.

I gained an appreciation for the staff members’ concerns last year when the director asked me to facilitate a staff team that was developing a new method for managing customer information. The organization’s customer knowledge sat in various information silos, and staff didn’t know what they already knew about their customers. Over the next six months, the director and I met several times about the project, and I encountered an ongoing stream of negative comments. Nothing that we did pleased her.

At one such meeting, I noted that she seemed pretty defensive about the team’s ideas. She got angry. “Russ, I’m tired of hearing people say that I’m always defensive, or that I resist change. I’m not afraid of change, but I’ve invested too much of my life in this organization to put up with changes that take us backwards!”

I reflected on her comment for several days. It was heartfelt. She was very frustrated that she was labeled as “resistant to change.” And then I remembered a powerful message from a great book on change: “People don’t resist change … they resist loss.” The quote comes from “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I think the authors are absolutely right.

Pick up almost any book or article on change, and there will be a passage on “dealing with resisters.” The assumption is that there are always people who resist change, and many resist any and all changes. I think Heifetz and Linsky’s message is far more accurate. Sure, there are some folks who routinely get upset when their orderly world is altered. I have a friend who gets angry each time he goes to the supermarket and finds some items placed on different shelves. But it’s not the fact of change that most of us oppose, it’s the perception that we’ll be worse off because of it.

In the director’s case, she worries that her staff members carry out changes without thinking about the unanticipated consequences of their actions. As she put it to me, “They get enthusiastic, which is great, and then they move forward without consulting key stakeholders. They forget to learn what happened when we tried something similar in the past. They don’t appreciate the ripple effects created by any change. How can I support a new initiative that solves one problem and creates three new ones?” Fair question.

Our staff team made much better progress in the following months as we learned to anticipate the director’s questions and tried to see her concerns in a positive light: She loves the organization and wants to be sure we don’t lose its core strengths as we innovate. We also invited her to play devil’s advocate at times, asking her to anticipate negative consequences of our plan and tell us how to avoid them. We incorporated many of her suggestions into our plan. And when we made the final presentation to her, she was beaming.

So the next time you’re working on an innovation, keep in mind that your real challenge isn’t the fact that it involves change. Your challenge is what people think they’ll lose. Everyone will benefit if you ask those who will be affected these questions:

• If we implement this project as planned, how might it help you and your colleagues?

• What problems might it create for you? What will be harder for you?

• What about its impact on our customers?

• What changes should we make in the plan to ensure that has a positive impact on staff and customers?

• Can you help us monitor implementation so that we learn early on of any problems?

Engaging in this kind of open, candid conversation will help you create a better product or program. And those people who’ve been labeled as “resisters” may just turn into advocates.