What makes leading change so tough?
There’s not one reason – as leading successful change is anything but simple. But, there is a popular explanation. It’s this – people resist change.
You’ve heard it before. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. Take a few seconds and consider what you believe that people resist change.
Your beliefs affect your ability to lead.
And, this notion that people resist change is such a common belief that many leaders take it to be a fact. Yet, it’s not true.
It’s comforting to assume that people resist change.
Then, when people don’t embrace the change you’re leading, there’s a ready-made explanation; an explanation that anchors all of the challenges leaders face in human nature.
The upside of this explanation is that it let’s everyone off the hook. Resistance is inevitable, according to this belief. And there’s precious little leaders can do about it.
The downside of this belief is that . . . well . . . you’re left right where you started. Not very useful. Are you ready for a new approach? It starts with a simple idea:
It’s not inevitable or even natural for people to resist change.
People change all the time. Human beings are wired to change. We’ve been changing for millions of years. In fact, the impulse to change, evolve, adapt and the motivation to improve are wired into our brains and bodies.
We are more naturally oriented to adapt than resist.
People are wired to adapt, to change. That’s what’s made our species so successful. And, this process of adaptation can proceed quickly or slowly.
When the conditions for change are right – people adapt in a heartbeat. Then, the change process is resistance-free. You’re happy. They’re happy. The results are positive.
But, when the conditions aren’t quite right – people struggle to adapt.
Their struggle slows things down. The schedule slips. The costs increase. Customers complain. It’s not pretty.
But, that doesn’t mean they’re resistant.
Labeling people’s struggle to adapt as resistance blinds you to what you can actually do to create the conditions that promote resistance-free change. When you see what’s happening as resistance, you want to make it go away.
But, if at the same time you believe that resistance is inherent in human nature – you’ve placed yourself in a double-bind that causes you to act in ways that actually exacerbate the struggle – and continue to frustrate you.
Trying to make resistance go away doesn’t create the conditions that promote rapid adaptation. Which is what you want. So, the first step towards leading change is making a small mental shift.
Here’s the shift:
When people appear to be resisting change – what they are actually doing is struggling to adapt to the change.
Don’t rush past this idea. Even if it doesn’t make sense right away or if you find it hard to accept, just give yourself some time to explore it.
When people appear to be resisting change, they’re struggling with reorganizing their sense of:
§ Who they are
§ What they do
§ How they need to work with others
§ And more.
They’re trying to adapt to what the change requires of them – and it’s more than meets the eye (or that shows up in the typical project plan).
People need help adapting to all that change requires.
They seldom get it in the way most change efforts are constructed. And so they struggle. It’s not fun for them, you, or the organization. Because, when people are struggling, they’re not at their best. They act in ways that seem . . . well . . . resistant. And it’s frustrating.
But, when you mistake the signs of struggle for “resistance” – you’re not able to skillfully address the conditions that perpetuate the struggle. And unless you can address those conditions, the struggling will perpetuate.
Try this mental exercise:
Step 1. Think about someone or some group that you have considered resistant. Picture them. And say to yourself, “Boy, are they resistant!”
§ Notice how you feel.
§ What you think.
§ And how they appear to you.
If you’re similar to others who have done this process, it doesn’t take long before you’re feeling irritated, anxious, hopeless, or some combination of these difficult emotions. And thoughts may be running through your mind such as, “What is wrong with them? Why can’t they just get with the program?”
Okay, enough self-inflicted suffering. Now, try something different by making a small mental shift.
Step 2. Picture the same person. But, now realize (make this mental shift) that while they appear to be resisting change – what they’re actually doing is struggling to adapt to the change.
§ Look at them with this mind shift. See them as struggling to adapt.
§ What’s it like to adopt this perspective?
§ How does it change your experience?
How have your emotions changed? What about your thoughts? Most people report that instead of being angry they’re interested in figuring out how to help the other person move efficiently through the struggle.
This is just a small mental shift. But, subtle shifts in thought and perspective can open up whole new realms of action. And this shift, is key to leading resistance-free change.
§ What do you believe about resistance to change?
§ What mental shifts have made it easier for you to lead change?
(This article is adapted from the book Leading Resistance-Free Change)