If you want change, you must deal with fears thereof

“Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and we go through change in a similar state of shock.” —James Baldwin

Originally published in Current, Sept. 20, 2004
Commentary by Cindy Browne

Change is at the heart of every plan, project and strategy we devise in our organizations. As creative problem-solvers, we’re constantly trying to strengthen our stations and generate new value for our communities.

The paradox is that, as humans, we also come equipped with an innate drive to keep things just as they are.

In a previous article on change (Current, Feb. 23, 2004), I observed that we public broadcasters talk a lot about the need for change but very little about change itself. Because change is a constant in our lives, perhaps we think we’ve learned how to navigate it successfully through trial and error.

In reality, few of us are skilled at dealing with change. History (and the Harvard Business Review) indicate that more than 70 percent of change initiatives fail.

They fail because while we generally pay adequate attention to the “what” and the “how” of change, we’re rarely as thorough when it comes to anticipating the impact of change on people. We’re shocked to find that our colleagues not only don’t support our fabulous ideas, they actually try to kill them by resisting the changes required for our vision to become a reality.

Resistance to change consumes huge amounts of individual and organizational energy. The challenge is to transform your colleagues’ resistance into committed support for needed changes.

Respecting resistance

The first step toward that transformation is to recognize that some kinds of resistance are good and are, in fact, crucial to the success of your project.

For example, your colleagues may thoroughly understand the true risks associated with your proposed change. What appears to be resistance on their part is really a disguised opportunity for you—a chance to work together to improve your plan and at the same time build support for the project.

Alternatively, staff members may agree with the direction of a proposed change but feel overwhelmed or otherwise unable to implement it. If this is the case, you will need to help them prepare.

These are examples of healthy, rational resistance. Dealing forthrightly with them will increase your odds of success. Here’s another paradox: If your change doesn’t create resistance, it means that no one really cares. If no one cares, nothing will change.

Once you get past the rational concerns about change, you’re left with the effects of change that really matter to people. These are the deep, emotion-based fears we all have of losing something we value as a result of change. 

What do we value in organizations? In ascending order, we value:

Resistance has many faces

It is the fear of these losses, real or perceived, that generates resistance to change.

Think about a change you’ve encountered in your organization. Did you or you co-workers experience any of the losses mentioned above? If so, you probably remember being uncomfortable, even anxious about the impending change. If fears of loss are not recognized and honored, people begin defying change in various ways, including:

Do you recognize these behaviors? If we fail to anticipate the impacts of change on our colleagues, their resistance can become an unstoppable force, often creating greater disruption than the change itself. This can shelve a proposal for change or leave it dead on arrival. The result? Management loses credibility, employees become more cynical and another initiative for change contributes to that 70 percent failure rate.

There are ways to avoid sparking this resistance.

First, reflect on your organization’s track record with change. If past changes went well, people may trust that the next change will also succeed and choose to support it. But if past changes were imposed from the top or were implemented without consideration for loss, resistance may take root. Be honest with yourself about how people are likely to respond to your change initiative.

Second, identify those who will be involved and affected by the change. Antici-pate the kinds of losses they might see hiding behind your shiny new idea. Denying the existence of their very real fears will only drive the resistance deeper. Imagine, too, what kinds of benefits they might derive from supporting the change. Acknowledge and honor the losses while reminding your colleagues how the change will benefit them and the organization.

Anyone who’s spent 10 minutes with a preschooler knows that his or her favorite question is, “Why?” Our need for context and meaning only grows as we mature. Saying “Because I said so” doesn’t work any better with a grown-up than with a child, so the third step is to build the case for change. Make it doubly powerful by appealing to both heart and mind. Pull together the facts and marry them with your vision for a better future, a vision that inspires while it answers the practical question, “What’s in it for me?” If the answer is persuasive, all parties will see themselves as winners, not losers, in the future you envision.

Help restore your co-workers’ sense of control by sharing the responsibility for designing and implementing the change. Too often we talk about getting staff “buy-in” for a proposed change. This implies we’re merely selling them on plans we’ve already made, forgetting that selling is a transaction requiring two willing parties. If the “buyer” says no, that’s the end of the transaction and your great idea.

When staffers closest to the work have early and meaningful roles in planning the change, it’s no longer necessary to “sell” the idea to them. They already “own” the change. This illustrates a third paradox: To make participation meaningful, the advocate for change must be willing to share control with others in exchange for their commitment.

Finally, don’t assume that people will automatically support a change once they understand the need for it. They may also recognize drawbacks for them as individuals — such as becoming beginners again, learning new skills required by the change. If they don’t see how the organization will help them master their new jobs, they will dig in their heels, clinging to the jobs they can do well. New skills don’t fall from the skies or appear to us in dreams — they must be developed. Include training costs in your project budget. By supporting learning, the organization provides a benefit to employees while motivating them to support change.

Retune your processes and structures. Make certain that your performance evaluation and reward systems reflect the needs of your change initiative rather than encouraging staffers to do things the old way. Nothing creates cynicism faster than committing to the new way of doing things, only to find that the employer forces you back into old behaviors.

Resistance is a natural response to change. It can obstruct even the most obvious and desirable changes. By reframing it as a potential source of positive energy, we can transform resistance into commitment to change and excitement about the future. 

Public broadcasting veteran Cindy Browne, based in the Twin Cities area, consults with public broadcasters on strategic change planning, partnering and organizational renewal. E-mail: cbrowne217@aol.com.

Web page posted Sept. 8, 2008
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee


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