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Resistance To Change

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate


I’ve been following some excellent posts about resistance to change initiatives, such as those at Holger Naumeier’s Change Management Blog and Jack Vinson’s Knowledge Jolt with Jack. The context of these discussions is organizational change management, but there are interesting parallels with the field of public policy consensus building.

Change is a key dimension of conflict in any setting. Change affects how resources are used, who benefits, who pays the cost, who’s treated fairly or unfairly – and often the conditions under which people go about their work. The potential impacts affect various stakeholders differently, and conflict readily follows from this disparity. Stakeholders who believe they face a new risk of loss will naturally resist major change.

Public Policy Consensus

There’s a big difference, though, in the way proposals for change are defined and introduced in the two settings. In a collaborative policy process, the participants represent independent agencies, businesses, communities and other types of interest groups. Each has its own power base and set of interests regarding the issues on the table. It is most often the case in a genuine consensus-seeking process that no one of these actors has complete control to effect change without the cooperation of the others.

The stakeholders, however, may not fully grasp this reality at the outset. They’re eager to jump into a discussion of their own solutions but may quickly find that each interest group has its own take on what the problem is.

Each puts its own interests at the center of a change proposal. They may start competing over problem definitions in order to point the process toward their favored solutions. If it’s clear that additional data is needed to clarify the problem, a competition for control of the interpretation of data can readily follow.

After a time, all these attempts to control the process collapse as the stakeholders fully recognize that each one lacks the power to impose its values and ideas on the others. They all need to negotiate with each other to reach agreement on data, problem definition, and options for change that respond to one another’s interests. Then the collaborative process can really begin.

Change Management

In an organizational setting, the stakeholder groups with their varied concerns about change are all part of a single hierarchical structure. The power to define problems and solutions and to initiate change is controlled by leadership at the top of the hierarchy. There no question about the authority of leadership to do this.

A change management process may be used to guide the new policies and practices through the implementation phases. If staff resist the change, the response might to better inform them about the urgency of the problem and the potential effectiveness of the new approach. This education process may be participatory with opportunities for staff input and feedback.

But, under these strategies, even when the process is carried out in a participative manner, the assumption remains that definition and solution are both defined and controlled by leadership proposing the change. I don’t find it surprising that such an approach might trigger resistance by staff and managers most directly affected by change. The system they’re a part of has, in effect, disempowered them by failing to consult their expertise at the earliest stages of identifying the nature of the challenge and how best to deal with it. The need for major change also implies that the hard work of staff hasn’t been enough to get the job done. That message is demoralizing.

In the early summer of 1952 …, President Truman used to contemplate the problems of the General-Become-President should Eisenhower win the forthcoming election. “He’ll sit here,” Truman would remark (tapping his desk for emphasis), “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

from Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership Resistance to Change: by Richard Neustadt.

No matter how nominally participatory, the change strategy will feel more like persuasion than collaboration – an effort to sell a predetermined outcome rather than create shared understanding about both problem and solution. Because of their subordinate position in the hierarchy, however, the various subgroups of management and staff – each with different interests – cannot openly fight the leadership without serious jeopardy to their careers.

Instead, they may demonstrate their power more passively by slowing down implementation. These are the people who really run the organization’s operations and know better than anyone how to bury change efforts unobtrusively in day to day activities. This may look like “resistance” born from irrational attachment to old ways of doing things, but that’s not what’s going on.

They are demonstrating to leadership that they do have power and experience that needs to be recognized. Giving orders from the top isn’t always enough to get the job done when facing a question of changing an organization’s culture and way of doing business.

A Collaborative Approach to Change

The most effective organizational change strategies that I’ve observed start with a collaborative effort not only to surface problems and solutions but to develop a joint idea of a better future for the organization. The signal from the top is that we’re all in this together and have to work together to adapt successfully to the forces that make older approaches less effective than they used to be. That sort of process recognizes the contributions of all members of the organization and empowers them to be part of the process of defining change strategies.

Despite the apparent differences of the organizational and policy consensus settings, then, they are quite similar when it comes to the interdependence of the various interests in achieving useful change. Just as participants in a policy consensus process begin by overestimating their power to control the outcome, organizational leadership can also mistake its position at the top of a hierarchy as conferring the exclusive power to define the course of major change.

It’s rarely quite that straightforward – just as Eisenhower found out to his dismay that Truman was right. In response to his early commands for immediate action, nothing happened.


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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