Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Resistance to Change

People are just naturally resistant to change.
I disagree.  All people are not resistant to change.  We humans embrace change.  We seek change.  We initiate change.  Look at styles.  Look at new technology and the way people throughout the world seek it and embrace it.  Look at wanting a new car with the newest bells and whistles. We want change.
We are resistant to change under certain circumstances.  All of us are.  We are most resistant to change when we are convinced that it will be bad for us. We may resist if we suspect it will be bad for us.  This isn’t crazy.  It is sane to resist change that is going to hurt us.
So, when we are frustrated because people do not want to accept the changes that we are trying to initiate, ask how the changes might hurt them or seem to hurt them.
In the workplace, the most common concern about change is will I lose my job?  In a factory, we were trying to develop some improvements by creating work cells. Fewer people would be needed to do the same work. We got a lot of resistance from shop floor workers.  They dragged their heels about every suggestion.  We discovered that there was a secret plan to lay a number of workers off the following week. The secret had leaked out.  The connection was obvious.  To participate was to cut your own throat.
We never did get much done that time.  We had not only warned the client of this problem, but also had a clause in the contract that the work we did with them should not lead to layoffs.
With another client, management had no intention of implementing layoffs. We were converting an assembly line into a work cell with 40% fewer people required, and the workers expressed their misgivings.  Management pledged that there would be no layoffs and explained the need to meet market demands with the capacity that would be freed up. They were trying to keep and grow work at that factory, rather than opening a plant in Mexico.  The improvements would actually help to guarantee that work would continue to be done in the U.S. factory. 
Management had enough credibility with the workers that they accepted the change process (which involved trying out different alternatives, requiring their cooperation), and they threw themselves into the effort.  Over the next year the employment in that plant more than doubled.
A lot can be gained in overcoming resistance to change in the workplace through honest explanations of what is being sought.  Of course, this is more effective if management has some credibility to begin with. 
Resistance to change is not a given.  This said there are differences in the disposition to accept change. Some people are far more adventuresome than others.  They see what is new and different is fascinating, as long as it is not threatening.  Others see no need to change or may have lived in situations or cultures in which change is often threatening in some way.  The peasant in a rural society who subsistence farms, using methods handed down by his ancestors, is likely to be cautious of all new and improved methods. If the new methods do not work and crops fail, he will no longer subsist. It can mean the end of his existence.
There are differences among people in the tolerance of risk.  Some people get a charge out of a certain amount of risk.  Others are more concerned about security.
In the same workplace people differ in the kind of change that they will embrace. In a study that we conducted in a factory in the early 1970s, in Bolivar, Tennessee, we found that some people were more sociable and thrived in a situation where they continuously interacted with others. Change that leads to being isolated from others was very undesirable for this group.
In contrast, for another group that we called traditional craftsmen the ideal situation was to be given the necessary material, tools, equipment, and information to do a job and be left alone to do it.  They did not like to be put into situations where they had to interact with others.
People do not resist all change.  They resist change that they perceive will hurt them or put them in situations that they do not like. People are not all alike.  The same change can have different effects on different people. 
Overcoming resistance to change involves being perceptive about how the change is received, being honest and clear, and in some cases being accommodating to individual differences. Managers are more often inclined to tell people that this is they way it’s going to be. You need to accept it.  The excuse is, people are just naturally resistant to change, implying that nothing can be done about it.

Notes: the research in Bolivar Tennessee is discussed in  “Changing Work: The Bolivar Project”  Michael Maccoby - Working Papers for a New Society, 1975 and in “The Process of Change at Bolivar,” Margaret Molinari Duckles, Robert Duckles, and Michael Maccoby, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science  /1977; 13: 387-399. There is an interesting follow-up to that project that appeared in the New York Times in 1998.

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