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Why do people resist change?

While discussing a change initiative with a client recently it was clear that many senior executives around her are resistant to the scale and speed she is proposing. The CEO was fully on board, seeing the need to move quickly and the evidence was compelling, yet the general consensus around her was that it’s too much too soon. In this case, the desire to play safe was outweighing the perceived need to change.

This is a situation we come across regularly, especially where transformational change is needed. It can be especially prevalent in a disrupted market where the established value model is changing. This kind of resistance points to self interest and generally reflects a perception that something will be lost or given up by the individuals involved. In the end we ultimately seek to protect ourselves if we feel under threat in some way.

I saw similar behaviours in the early days of online and digital in the music sector. In that situation, when the executives finally got on board the initiative had already been given to others, along with many millions in revenue. This pattern of behaviour plays out time and time again in many large organisations, especially those that have been around for a long time. They get entrenched and the group thinking becomes more narrow. Sadly, the ultimate result is demonstrated in the constant stream of big brands that couldn’t adapt quickly enough and went bust. Size and history offers no protection against the inevitable if the company can’t get out of it’s own way and adapt.

Fear of loss will derail even the most noble of intentions

The fear of losing control or power is a big one, especially in large organisations where big salaries and bonuses are at stake. Ego also plays a big part and even job titles can be viewed as important status symbols for some people. Just the perception that control, power or status could be affected is enough to cause people to dig their heals in, either actively or passively. Maybe even showing up in ways that can seem strange on the surface. My experience is that this is especially true in US companies and my hypothesis is that it’s to do with the short term nature of the contracts and the resulting hire and fire culture. It tends to encourage a tendency to focus on protecting what you have, minimising any risk and not trusting anyone.

In situations where big bold transformation is required, the mind-set needed is almost the polar opposite to the one created in a hire and fire culture. It requires a more maverick, can-do attitude, being prepared to experiment and trust each other, embracing different ways of thinking and accepting that failure is key to success. The key is to try, fail fast and learn quickly.

If you’ve ever tried pushing big change through a hire and fire culture you’ll know what I mean. It’s a brutal process and not for the faint hearted. It’s takes longer than it should (in our experience at least 2 to 3 times longer) and is therefore much more expensive. Also the end result is often a watered down version of what was intended because so much must be given up to “please the crowd” in order to get anything done at all.

Self interest is not to be underestimated and can derail even the most noble of intentions if not addressed. If you can find ways to ensure that the fear of loss is acknowledged and dealt with head on then the chances of engagement increase dramatically, along with the momentum. Most people and most change initiatives fail to do this well enough so it’s little wonder that so many important change initiatives struggle.

Easing any form of change resistance starts with an understanding of where it’s coming from and then being prepared to face it. In my experience, the tendency is to ignore these factors because they are seen as difficult to quantify and tricky to address.

At Applied Change, we’re continually striving to build on the body of knowledge in dealing with change, especially change resistance. That way, we can help more people and more worthy change causes to achieve their goals more quickly and with greater ease. We can’t stop change happening around us but how we respond is our choice.

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