An organisational community can be torn over questions of change. All too often, as in the case presented here, resistance can be configured as a monolith to be crushed or avoided. But working with an organisational leader to deal with resistance, considering it as a source of intelligence while thinking of the resisters as having a range of views that can be segmented and understood, may help create more lasting change in the longer run. Here we reflect on Mary, who was struggling with this very problem. Her resistance to working with the resistance in her organisation seems not only be stressful, but also to be hindering progress.
Stand still and change
15th August, today’s date, is right bang in the middle of the slow summer season, when the world – at least here in the South of France – slows to a mid-summer, if gently festive, standstill. So, this is a perfect time to think about change.
Indeed, this day is a national and religious holiday in France and much of the traditional Christian world, marking as it does the passing of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, who, by tradition, fell asleep or died or passed into paradise, from where, believers hold, the greatest of mothers actively supports us in our earthly struggles.
So, while this day is a day when many countries stop to feast and to rest, it is also a time when a major change is marked and, spiritually at least, a moment to think about our struggles to change things in our lives, not least our working lives.
Not in the ‘leave-things-as-they-are-business’
My work is about change: when you go to a management consultant or to an executive coach, you’re asking to change. I’m in the change business; I’m certainly not in the ‘make-it-stay-the-same’ business. Goodness, my company is called transform: we’re about change.
Why is it then that at the very point when we most seem to want to change, when we seek help to do it, we most resist it?
Take a case in point: another Mary
Take Mary, the head of the large local branch of an international development ‘NGO’, based in a West African country. She arrived with a brief (from the top) that things had to change, and there seemed also to be a feeling amongst her senior staff that change was desirable. It amounted to a pretty major rethink including repositioning the programme sectorally and geographically, developing stronger internal systems and processes, having a stronger sense of focus, but also having the ability to scale up within that focus. In fact, it was all about growth and impact – and achieving more of it.
Starting with strategy, Mary consulted widely, writing up her findings in an outline strategy document, and prepared to present it to her senior team. Since she’d listened carefully, she expected that her paper, circulated prior to a senior team meeting would meet with approval and constructive engagement. But it didn’t. Not at all!
Rather than colleagues sharing and developing ideas – how one might think a well functioning team might engage with material they’d apparently had a hand in developing – the atmosphere was akin to a student defending their thesis to a panel of senior academics.
And the attacks came from left and right – self-interest was evidently at the forefront among them, but also complaints about the process and, perhaps veiled, some attacks on Mary herself. It was a challenge to authority itself.
Resisting resistance is futile
This was a surprise and a disappointment to Mary, and she found the meeting altogether stressful. How might we analyse the situation to help? What frames of reference can we use to support Mary develop an understanding and work with this level of resistance? Mary’s feeling after the meeting was to resist the resistance, to hold firm, to keep marching on. Work harder in other words and pretty much ignore the resistance.
New wine, old bottle
I wonder first if Mary carried, implicitly, a model of change in her mind. It’s an understandable model and a rational model that we may all recognise. In this model, management acts as a mediating force between external requirements (for goods and services) and the resources that they can bring to fund their delivery (fees, sales, donations, etc) with the internal capacity to deliver, designing roles and processes in the organisation, whose people have, over time, developed a way of working, an organisational culture. So management’s job is to ensure delivery, while facilitating incremental change to existing processes, people, ways or working, tradition, etc.
But this model is open to attack from three perspectives. First, it pretty much assumes a steady operating environment, which is certainly no longer the case in most if not all walks of working live. Second, it assumes that management’s authority (to change things, for example) equates to its power in practice to make change happen; it doesn’t really cope well with resistance: it assumes shared interest. The third point, related to the second, is that it’s pretty rational – it doesn’t seem to acknowledge that organisations are emotional places, since they comprise people with feelings, needs and expectations. The new wine of the way the world is now, just doesn’t fit well into these old rational bottles, or models.
From attack to intelligence
So, in this example, at least at this stage anyway, there was impasse: the leader listened, proposed, and the followers said ‘no’ in a variety of active and passive ways. Mary had created some disturbance in the status quo, but at this stage she was also feeling somewhat disturbed herself after the meeting, since any momentum for change had effectively been resisted by the very people who had been part of the process to initiate change.
But could Mary interpret these reactions as a source of intelligence and as part of a process? If she could, what messages would she take?
One option may be to consider whether the attack Mary experienced, was, psychologically speaking anyway, some kind of defence against the concern that team members at some level experienced about how a reasonable change proposal (in theory) might now affect them in practice, how they might have to stand up and be counted, take responsibility for implementing this change – make it happen. Perhaps there was also the idea that following a long and sustained period of very little change in this organisation (but a great deal of busy-ness), there was anxiety about the very idea of change itself. Change is a good idea, but not me and not just yet.
Another option to explore might be Mary’s own style? How safe were her rational assumptions about the change and how well it might go down? Did she in fact prepare well enough and gauge the emotional undercurrents before the critical meeting? And, what does this say about how Mary’s approach to recognising and managing her and other’s emotions in the work context. What are the lessons here for her?
But these are just two of my reflections. In fact, Mary wasn’t ready to explore these and other points at this stage. She just wanted to carry on.
New bottle for the new wine?
Not wanting to throw out the previous model, but recognising its shortcomings, perhaps we can provide some kind of emotional underpinning to enable it to be more like how we in fact respond?
In this idea, as an overlay to the previous model, we can anticipate a wave of pressure for change from a more volatile world, which also presents us with opportunities. As a staff team, alive to the world, we are often somewhat two-minded: we want to be in the world as it is, even if it’s changed, but we also know that we have ways of doing things here that work well and we want to retain them.
Thus, the one who previously (in the first model) was a manager is now a leader who recognises these tensions as inevitable, who wishes to enable her people to be alive to the way the world is changing, who encourages them to be themselves be leaders, co-creating the vision, ensuring that the key conversations happen and spending time working through the inevitable emotional reactions.
In this way, we can reframe resistance somewhat: we can now think of it as intelligence, necessary to inform our change work.
Towards a more nuanced approach to resistance
Up until now, I have approached the question of resistance, as Mary did, as more or less uniform, something of a monolith that needs to be shifted. But in fact, a range of views was present, and I suspect some positions were more strongly held than others, and some people felt more strongly than others about the same thing.
Hoyle talks about a continuum of responses to change, from the sycophant to the saboteurs, via more constructive engagement in the middle. Since she talks about attitudes to the substantive change itself (whether they are broadly positive or broadly negative) and about attitudes to the process by which change takes place (again, whether the response amongst staff is broadly positive or broadly negative, I have slightly reconstructed her continuum to create a little two-by-two taxonomy. I wonder if this would help Mary engage with the resistance in her case?
Not only may Mary reflect on which of her team may be in which group – and perhaps engage with them on this point – but also she may think about the process from here: what would be needed to prevent those who are engaging and challenging from becoming saboteurs? Could anything be done to help those whose approach is unchallenging to engage more in what amounts to a major change process for the organisation?
From Mary back to Mary
Reframing resistance as emotional intelligence can help leaders work with the grain of their organisations to deliver change. But to do this, they need to challenge their own assumptions, attune carefully to questions of process as well as substance, and be prepared to work with and understand the emotional responses that change proposals can bring in their wake.
With that acceptance and willingness, frames of understanding and models can be drawn upon, to help create lasting change. Without them, disturbance is the likely sad consequence.
I’m praying that Mary will help Mary look at these issues afresh, after her summer break.
- What’s your experience of resistance to proposals for change in your organisation?
- Is the reaction generally to resist the resisters, or to try to understand what may be going on below the surface, that might be useful intelligence?
- Does your experience validate the Hoyle model of segmenting resistance to change?
 This idea of emotions in organisations and the ability to interpret them as intelligence is taken from Huffington et al’s ‘Working below the Surface: The emotional live of contemporary organizations’ (Karnac, 2004) and in particular from David Armstrong’s chapter, Emotions in Organisations: disturbance or intelligence?’
 Ibid, Chapter 5: From sycophant to saboteur – responses to organizational change, Linda Hoyle