What are the reasons why change is difficult and even harder to manage? Where does resistance to change come from and how can we embrace change?
The question “why change is difficult” is easier to answer than finding where resistance to change comes from. There is no ready solution (especially not in the space of this blog post). The word “change”, in whatever context, has always made people react with varying degrees of fear, frustration, and/or anger. Yet, change goes on all around us, all the time. Much of change (the expanding waistline, for instance) happens so slowly and subtly that we don’t notice it until well after it’s taken place.
Some change is thrust upon us. We hear around the office that “change is in the wind” and we feel threatened and anxious. Let’s say your company has elected to implement a quality management system. Even if the current situation is not good — your customers are letting you know your product quality has slipped by walking away — many of us would still rather have the status quo. Better the devil we know than the one we don’t…right? (“We just have to make our stuff better…that’s all.”)
The organization has to deal with resistance on a personal and an institutional level. Each is difficult to overcome and, like it or not, both must be dealt with.
If I say to you, “We’re going to change the way we do things around here”, what’s your reaction? You have an emotional reaction, don’t you? Probably a mixture of shock, anxiety, apprehension, and a few other gut feelings.
You may feel unprepared. You may fear being left behind. Certainly, if you’re like most you don’t like the idea of leaving safe, familiar territory. (Besides, you haven’t done anything wrong.)
Experience may tell you to anticipate interpersonal conflicts in the course of change. It might also tell you to watch out for interoffice conflicts (power grabs, backstabbing…that kind of thing).
Institutional resistance to change is another reason why change is difficult. Larger companies have a harder time with change, due to inertia (i.e., “It’s the way things have always been done around here”). With the current state of the world economy, there’s the question of where and how to expend your limited time and other resources, not to mention that as resources are harder to come by, the company’s focus narrows considerably. (“We need to increase sales now!“)
Then there’s that 800-pound gorilla in the room — office politics. Whenever — wherever — there is change, some stand to lose power and others, to gain and consolidate. People forget about what’s best for everyone and concentrate on self. “Office politics” is probably the single biggest obstacle to change. Let me amend that — office politics has a hand in change, but not the change we really need.
Understand why change is difficult is because resistance to change exists. It may take unusually strong organizational leadership — someone with uncommon vision and fortitude — to overcome individual and organizational resistance to change. Top management holds the key to overcoming resistance to change, yet company leaders sometimes don’t lead very effectively.
If you say “we need to change” and you don’t follow that up with a rationale, education, support, and guidance, you lose credibility with your employees. You have to lead, and not just with words. You have to show what change will look like, how it will come about, and give your people an honest, accurate cost-benefit analysis (i.e., it will take x, y, and z and may cause some short-term pain but we’ll be a stronger company in the long run).
If you think company owners are the only ones who have a stake in whether the company is successful and profitable, you’re looking at the situation too narrowly.
Your employees all have a crucial stake. If the company maintains the status quo and falls behind its competitors as a result, many employees may be out of a job. It’s in their best interest to see their company grow and change with the times.
Whether you know it or not, the majority of employees feel the company’s products are their products. Acknowledging this sense of pride in ownership will only reinforce their sense of worth and investment.
They’re involved from day to day in all the low- and mid-level processes. They see many things you don’t. Furthermore, you don’t have time to look for all the little details. Trust them to know what’s going on and invite their observations and criticisms.
At the same time, understand that your employees have different backgrounds and, therefore, different perspectives on your situation. They all have an interest in seeing the company change and improve, but how they read the company’s situation — and how they’d go about effecting change if they were in top management’s seat — will vary. Value the different viewpoints and use them to your advantage.
Have you had a good talk with customer service, purchasing, or production lately? How do they see the company? What do they think the company needs to move forward? What do they need at their level to make change work? Ideas should be harvested from many sources to produce a well rounded picture.
You didn’t hire the best just to sit on their experience and talents, did you? You believe their personal and professional growth is in their best interests and yours, right? Well, why not make use of all that they have to offer? Show some trust in their knowledge and instincts — and in yours. It doesn’t make sense not to.
Everyone working together toward a common goal gives employees a sense of belonging and togetherness. “We’re in this together” isn’t just a slogan: it’s how exceptional organizations are run. It’s how companies like yours stay ahead of their competitors.
A concept that always coexists with the innovation is change. Along side the history of innovation in the U.S. is a history of people who were willing to let go of the past and embrace the new. They were willing to leave their homes and venture to a new world, and then settle new territories time and time again, and to fight for independence and form their own government.
These were obviously people who were willing to let go. We have also previously discussed how the U.S. still has many of the components needed to drive innovation. The question is whether we are still ready to embrace change and let go of the past in order to move forward when the opportunity is presented.
What is the point of talking about change? Why do you need to be willing to embrace change? Well, the answer to that question is simple; change is coming. It is inevitable and those who are not ready to ride the tide of change will probably be swept under by it.
The constant innovation that takes place in the U.S. and the resulting change means changes in people’s lives, including their work and jobs. There was a time when operators where needed to run elevators and to connect phone calls. What jobs will be obsolete next? Customer service representatives? Cashiers? Accountants? We can already see less of a need for call centers as people get information and place orders on-line. We also see automated check-out lanes. There is a plethora of accounting software available. We know change is coming, and typically if we are paying attention we can see it coming.
Should we resist these changes? Should we be asking for regulations and controls to make sure certain jobs are not lost? While that might seem like a solution, consider in retrospect; should there have been legislation to save the jobs of elevator and telephone operators? Of course, this returns to the question of embracing change or fighting change.
It is up to individuals to know if their skills are in danger of becoming obsolete. Most phone operators were aware of automated switching systems long before they received their pink slips. The ones who not only recognized the coming change, but prepared for it, were the ones least likely to try to cling to those obsolete jobs.
Fighting the natural force of change can be like trying to keep the sun from rising. Information systems, robotics, wireless technologies are really just starting to change our world, and the changes will likely start to come even more fast and furious. Changes are coming, and most likely they are coming to your field. Are you going to embrace change? Or are you going to ignore it and resist?
How can you be ready for change? Start changing now. Start with small changes. Try a new type of food, change you hairstyle, travel somewhere you have never been, learn a new language. Learn to embrace small changes and you will be on the road to embracing the larger changes to come. Think outside the box!
Without a willingness to let go of the past and embrace change, innovation can never take root and grow. Here in the U.S. we are counting on innovation to take us forward, just as we have counted on it in the past to bring us to where we are now. What is your role going to be? Will you embrace innovative techniques and products and make the most of them, or will you resist them in order to hold on to outdated methods and tools? You have the ability to change.