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.

Logic Models and the Quest for Results

They can help governments achieve the outcomes they want. But they have their downsides.

For the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen a growing demand for accountability in the public and nonprofit sectors. It’s not enough to document your program’s outputs—say, the number of students who took a class, or the percentage of children who received an inoculation; the emphasis is increasingly on outcomes—what did the students learn, or are fewer children getting a certain disease?

I happen to be a big believer in focusing on outcomes. That said, I’m also quite aware of the difficulties in determining outcomes. Outcomes can be difficult to measure, some of them take years (or even decades) to become visible, some cannot be quantified, and many outcomes are beyond the control of managers and their programs.

In recent years, some agencies have begun using what are called “logic models” to analyze and demonstrate the cause-effect chains that can lead to the results they are seeking. A logic model usually spells out a series of steps or activities that, when done well and in a timely manner, lead to a desirable outcome.

Here’s an example of a logic model, from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. This logic model was developed to address child abuse, a problem of great concern to Gov. Christine Gregoire. She believed that repeated abuse of children could be reduced through prompt reporting of suspected cases by child-protective-service social workers. So she set a goal: Social workers would report any suspected child abuse within 24 hours (the existing statute gave social workers 10 days). The logic model the department came up with spells out the theory behind this change:

Washington State logic model









As the graphic shows, the model is based on some assumptions: Faster reporting leads to faster investigations, which results in more effective safety plans, and these plans (when followed) reduce the incidence of children being abused multiple times.

If you’re thinking that surely there’s much more involved in keeping children safe than simply fast reporting and quick investigations, you’re right. But the state wanted to start somewhere, and its staff chose a change that it could control. The downward arrow demonstrates which actions are more or less under staff members’ control.

Logic models have several advantages, as well as a number of potential downsides.

Some advantages:

• They help staff see how their actions contribute to the ultimate outcome.

• They show what is within the staff’s control.

• They focus accountability very specifically; people know what they’re responsible for doing.

• They help managers determine whether long-term strategies are working and give them places to look when the strategy falls short.

And some of the caveats:

• By design, logic models simplify reality, which can hide significant factors that contribute to complex problems.

• Because logic models usually include quantitative measures, some staff may be tempted to game the system in order to “make their numbers.”

• They can limit creativity. As Roosevelt Johnson of the National Science Foundation puts it, “Innovations can be logical, but they aren’t necessarily linear.”

• Logic models rely on theories of cause-effect; if those theories aren’t based on solid evidence, the whole exercise is suspect.

Here’s an example of that last caveat:

In the 1980s, a well-regarded community action/anti-poverty agency in Iowa faced a challenge. When a man with a business background joined the board, he asked the staff a tough, but reasonable, question: “How’s business? Are we achieving our goal of bringing people out of poverty?” The staff assured him that they were doing just that. “How do you know?” he asked. “Where’s the evidence that we’re succeeding?”

The staff did a study that they expected would demonstrate their success. What they found, however, shocked them. Very few of their clients were climbing out of poverty. And most of those who did improve their economic situations did so by marrying someone with a good income. The agency director’s comment summed up the dilemma: “If we were running a dating service, we could declare success!”

This study forced the staff to rethink their strategy for helping people out of poverty. They made significant changes in their programs, based on different assumptions about what works—that is, they changed their logic model. The new strategy was based on evidence from other anti-poverty programs that were showing real success. And within two years, this agency was producing real and positive change for its clients.

This story illustrates one of the most useful aspects of using logic models: the process of developing them can produce important conversations about staff members’ assumptions, which can lead to a search for the evidence on which those assumptions are based. When the evidence isn’t there, it’s time to reevaluate your assumptions.


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‘Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills’

The way a successful airline finds employees who fit in with its distinctive culture holds lessons for the public sector.

Some years ago I was the director of a nonprofit agency. We provided services to handicapped individuals and their families. The work was hard, the clients really needed our services, the staff was highly trained and very committed, and we took pride in the impact we made on people’s lives.

But Bill, one of our most talented staff members, was a puzzle to me. On one hand, he was creative, funny, very persistent, smart, and usually got great results. Some of our multi-problem clients made real progress from Bill’s services. On the other hand, he often came across as the “smartest guy in the room.” He didn’t suffer from a small ego and didn’t hesitate to tell other staff when he had a better idea. His arrogant attitude won him no friends in the agency. To be fair, his ideas often were superior, but that only made matters worse from his colleagues’ point of view.

I tried to help Bill see that arrogance wasn’t in his interest, that other staff who might learn from him weren’t open to his ideas, that he could be more effective by teaming with other staff when working with a given family. Bill would have none of it; he saw himself as the brightest star in our agency. Ultimately, he had to leave.

I thought long and hard about what I came to call “the Bill problem”: great skills, creative ideas, lousy team player. What could I have done to keep Bill and help him soften his sharp edges? Then I came across a book about Southwest Airlines, Lessons in Loyalty: How Southwest Airlines Does It–An Insider’s View, and it totally changed the way I looked at the ways managers hire and develop staff.

The author, Lorraine Grubbs-West, cites nine lessons she learned as a senior executive at Southwest, from developing a culture of continual learning and creative methods for “onboarding” new employees (immersing them in the unique high-energy Southwest culture) to maintaining high standards for employees while giving them enormous support and quality training. But the most powerful lesson, for me, was the very first one: “Hire for attitude, train for skills.”

As I read on, Grubbs-West’s point became clear. It’s not that Southwest doesn’t value skills. Rather, she’s arguing that we can’t train people to have attitudes (just as athletic coaches like to say that “you can’t teach speed”) that are valuable to our organizations and that attitude is at least as important as skills in building the organization. Southwest’s message is also that our attitudes don’t tend to change dramatically during our lives, and when they do change, it’s not because of some employee-development program. As the author puts it, “Hire ‘nice’ ’cause you can’t train ‘nice.'” Organizations can most certainly train for the skills they need.

Southwest’s approach to “hiring for attitude” is easy to describe, but hard for many organizations to implement. The company:

• Makes people want to work for Southwest. The company’s ads convey its love of creativity, individuality, irreverence and humor, as well as its commitment to what it calls “positively outrageous customer service.”

• Defines the kinds of employees it wants and communicates that widely. Over the years, the company has identified the key attributes that build and sustain its culture (thinking outside the box, preference for a team approach, taking the job seriously but not himself or herself seriously), and it focuses on those throughout the recruitment process.

• Uses its marketing and public-relations strategies to support its recruiting efforts.

• Makes all of its employees recruiters. Southwest employees are continually “interviewing” applicants for jobs at the company. They notice how applicants greet the receptionist, how they respond to people in the hallway, and so on. Southwest employees love the company culture and are determined to hire only those who will contribute to it.

Fine and well, you might be thinking, but what about people whose skills are both wonderful and rare but whose attitudes don’t fit well with the organization’s culture. Shouldn’t we make exceptions to the Southwest rule and hire such people?

Yes, there are such people, and if their skills are not only rare and wonderful, but also well suited to achieve very high organizational priorities, you can make the case to hire them. In my experience however, there are very few such people. Sadly, I’ve seen many people hired (or retained) because their skills seemed to be indispensable to the organization’s success, only to cause far more problems than they were worth because of their attitudes. And, of course, once such people are hired, you have a very difficult time parting company with them.

Most public organizations would do well to follow the Southwest example: Know the attributes your culture needs, rigorously assess them during the recruitment process, and hire (primarily) for attitude. Just make sure it’s the right attitude. Don’t hire people like Bill.

To access an archive of Russ’ past columns at, click here.

*this column originally appeared on,  Nov /09 /11  .copyright c. 2011.