Leadership Series: Why Do People Resist Change? A Theory
I have a belief on why competent people resist change. Every time I have raised this idea to a mentor or, worse, a senior customer they made it clear they didn’t agree. Once a customer stopped me mid-speech to shoot me down with the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head and a, “that’s cute.” As my career has progressed though, I keep coming back to it. More importantly, my experience has taught me that believing this hypothesis, even when it’s wrong is more successful than the alternative. And it is not wrong very often anyway. I should say upfront that I am sure it isn’t an original idea. In fact, I’m pretty sure I picked it out of book that I’ve long forgotten. Here it is:
People resist change because they don’t understand what is being asked of them or what they are supposed to do. Let’s assume you actually convince a team that change is needed (convincing will be a future blog). Why would a person drag his/her feet? I think it’s simple: the individual simply doesn’t know what to do. Some people (first adopters) will just start taking action. They will try something and adjust. Few changes are life and death so there is no forcing function that turns everyone into first adopters. The vast majority of people will muddle around- afraid of doing wrong, unsure how the change will impact others. In reality, it is safest to muddle.
Real change only takes hold when the muddlers become adopters. Through countless books like Gladwell’s Tipping Point, we know that once enough people adopt an idea the momentum drives overall adoption. The trick is getting to the tipping point. To get there, you have to map out explicit steps and processes that a person must do. This is where most visionary change agents fail. They spend all their time selling the idea, the need, and the greatness of the future state. They stay too high a level and view lack of progress as people resisting. I don’t think it is. It’s waiting and confusion.
Maybe I am wrong, but there is an easy way to tell the difference. Do what I said above. Give a person explicit steps (or better build with them). If they still don’t follow, then you know. Even more telling, if others move and one doesn’t, then you know that person won’t be there in the end. Maybe they don’t like it or, less sinister, they don’t have the skills. Either way, you know and they will too. It won’t be a hard discussion.
In the end, it’s easy to think that people are against you and the change. It allows you to blame them for lack of progress. The moment you accept that as truth you start treating the team in a way that dooms the change. Their defenses go up. Defense and change can’t coexist. Instead assume you haven’t made it clear enough and keep working.
One final note - I do NOT advocate for major personnel turnover during change. My most successful turnarounds were mostly the incumbent teams with a slight injection of new talent. More on this during the rest of this blog series.