Leaders, Please Quit Saying Change is Hard

Dr. Marilu Goodyear

Given what is happening in today’s world I know it seems a bit strange, if not downright crazy, to advise leaders not to acknowledge that change is hard.  The common wisdom about normal change processes is that employees in organizations are likely to resist and to find change processes hard and disruptive.  Then there is 2020, when changes are sudden, dramatic, and filled with emotion.  Am I crazy to advise this now?  I ask that you bear with me for a few minutes while I make my case that continuing to say that change is hard is counterproductive to organizational health and well-being. 

Defining Terms & Expectations

The word “hard” has both an adjective definition (solid, firm and rigid) and an adverb definition of (with a great deal of effort).  Both of these definitions point to that traditional view of change resistance:  that those who are the change recipients are likely to resist change.  However, initial reactions to change announcements often produce a wide variety of reactions.  The answer to this question is undetermined from a research point of view and, in my view, likely to remain so given the wide variety of changes, settings, organizational circumstances, leader trust, etc.  Given that unknown, I advocate that leaders make the most neutral assumption possible about initial reactions to change and to see the promise of engagement with change recipients throughout the change process regardless of their initial reaction. 

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Is it true that we assume resistance and therefore help fulfill that expectation?  Change is NOT hard for everyone and everyone has experienced hard changes.  As a change consultant, I have seen a variety of reactions to change proposals that vary by person, unit, and the nature of the change. 

  • Some reactions look much more like “It’s about time” than “this is going to be hard.” 
  • Other reactions look much more like non-reactions such as “that’s interesting and my questions are….” instead of negative or positive positions assumed right out of the gate.  
  • And there are the “hell no, I won’t go” reactions which fuel so much of organizational change resistance literature. 

None of these reactions necessarily fit the definitions of “hard” nor are leaders well served by labeling them so.  One researcher proposes that the word “ambivalence” is the most appropriate concept to assume in change processes (Piderit, 2000).  This is particularly true when dealing with changes that are complex or call for fundamental new ways of thinking.  Given how rapid environmental changes are in organizations these days, these circumstances comprise a majority of our change processes. 

Engagement & Partnerships

A fundamental truth of organizational change is that change recipients, those followers who are necessary to implement a change, have a great deal of power over change success.  It may be the leaders who are determining the initial change proposal but it is the followers who have a great deal of say about the ultimate change.  Given the critical nature of this partnership, why would a leader begin by assuming what followers will feel about the change? Partnerships are best built on respect for the change recipient, their thoughts, feelings, and potential contributions to the change process.  Successful partnerships are established when  leaders  clearly communicate mission and goals and then listen to all change recipients who will likely put forward a variety of initial thoughts and emotions.  Leaders have a choice to continue to engage based on those reactions, both in support and critique of the approach.  Leaders who chose to characterize and label those reactions risk getting in their own way; they risk missing the opportunity to build partnerships based on engaged understanding, conversations and finding solutions.  Resisting the temptation to label and summarize follower reactions provides the opportunity for conversations to focus on an in-depth understanding of the feedback (from critique to questions to support). In fact, doing so may actually help alleviate what is perceived as “hard” about a particular change effort.

Eliminate Assumptions/Seek Understanding    

So what does this mean for today’s environment when leaders are faced with brand new territories of critical health threats and societal fractures?  While I am certainly not an expert at how to face these issues, I believe I know one fundamental concept:  making assumptions about another person never moves the conversation forward.  Asking neutral questions, listening carefully for understanding, and seeking from each person what action would feel right to them is the key.   Leaders will still need to make decisions and at least some of those decisions will not be supported by their followers.  Despite that fundamental condition, seeking a partnership based on openness to all thoughts and feelings is a necessary condition for overall acceptance. Being heard counts, being able to name your own reaction counts, and knowing your leader has taken that information into consideration makes all the difference.                           

 

References

Piderit, S. K. (2000). “Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence:  A multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change.” Academy Of Management Review 25(4): 783-794.

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