Updated: Oct 24, 2021
Do you look forward to the next iPhone release? How about new clothing styles? The change of seasons? Do you like the idea of traveling to a place you’ve never been to? How about checking out the latest movies?
Then why is it a commonly held belief at work that “people hate change”? “The organization is change-saturated”. “We are suffering change-fatigue”. Today we’re going to call BS on this. Let’s take a closer look at the unquestioned assumption that there is a limit to how much change an organization can withstand.
Perhaps it’s not ‘change’ that’s we’re saturated with, perhaps it’s conflicting changes that cause the saturation.
Peel back the change. When people indicate an aversion to change, I like to dig a little deeper. What is it about the change that they don’t like? I’ve never, and I do mean NEVER, found the issue to the “change”. It’s usually the anticipated negative impact of the change and conflict with the existing corporate structure.
The company structure is in conflict with the change. When we promote change that is in direct conflict with company structure and strategy, it will be resisted. Robert Fritz compares this to driving a car that’s out of alignment. You continually adjust the steering wheel to the right. I can tell you that you should hold the steering wheel straight, but you can’t do that until we correct the alignment. That’s how it is when we preach Agility to organizations, but the organizational strategy is in direct contradiction of Agile principles. Don’t blame the people for resisting the change, they are trying to keep the car on the road.
Fear that my performance will suffer. If you are a performing your job well today, there’s a threat that you might not perform as well after the change. Let’s take a simple example of a new computer system. “Today I’m super quick and I know my way around the software. With the new system, it might not work the same way, some of the functions that help me get my job done won’t be there, my performance might suffer.”
Most good change management professionals are aware of this, and try to allay fears while making sure there is training in place. An additional step is to make sure managers are creating safety for people during the transition. “Change or die” is a great slogan for companies, but not so much for individual employees.
Confusion reward / punishment structure. A close cousin to “performance fear”, is confusion in the reward structure and reward behaviors. For example, “My boss has reprimanded me for speaking out of turn in the past and now you’re telling me that you want me to speak out? I don’t think so.” Or “I have built a career on directing work and you are telling me to let people decide on their work? How will I know it will be successful?”
When we ask people to embrace new behaviors and drop old ones, we need to unravel the conditioned behaviors. We also need to create safety for new behaviors, even when they aren’t effective. Using the prior example, if someone speaks out, and it’s clunky and a little offensive, we need to support their courage in speaking out. And this means “I like that you spoke out, but you need to work on your delivery.” No, “You spoke out. Thank you. Period.”
Fear that I will not be happy. “I’m happy, or at least content, in my current job. Will I still be happy after this change?” I see this with teams moving to Agile frameworks. There’s a lot of high-touch communication, and introverts aren’t convinced that they are going to like this.
Fear that the change is bad for the company. Some people truly fear that the change will be detrimental to the company. It is worth exploring these fears! These are the people that care deeply. Agile evangelists deliver conflicting messages when they (ok ‘we’) say “we want it to be safe to speak up!” while also sending the message that “we don’t want to hear resistance!”
Brain Twist. Take a close look at resistance to a specific change in your organization. Peel back the resistance and find out what’s underneath it. See if you can address the underlying issues. And remember, resistors are not the enemy, they are usually the people who care the most!