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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Change is Difficult

To survive and thrive, we must be prepared at a minimum to modify, adjust, adapt and then adopt.  It's a little like trying to go up the down escalator. Stand still and you can be assured of moving backwards, farther away from your goal.  Change is necessary if organizations want to continue to improve and grow, but change instantly raising resistance from some people.

Here are four common reasons people resist change:

It's unknown –One of life's greatest fears is the unknown. It causes us to resist those things for which we cannot easily discern an outcome.

It's challenging – Change stretches us out of our comfort zone.  Some of us like to be stretched more than other people do.

It's uncertain – When we change, we are often introducing untested waters.  We prefer certainty.

It's unpopular – The resistance to change is universal.  Change invites animosity and tension.

The behavioral change can be the most difficult part of any change. We have all heard the adage "Old habits die hard."  Whether or not we like to admit it, we often are creatures of habit.

Try this experiment. Cross your arms. Now look at how your arms are crossed.  Which arm is on top? Now quickly re-cross your arms so the opposite arm is on top. Keep them crossed as long as you can.  Is that as comfortable? Probably not. Does that make it wrong? No, just different.

Crossing your arms is a very simple task, yet when you tried to do it differently, it felt uncomfortable.  In fact, for some, it may have been so uncomfortable that you couldn't even concentrate.

Yet, if you were to cross our arms differently for three weeks, the "new" way would start to feel comfortable. Many people won't take the time or will feel they can't stick to it that long. Would you ever slip back to crossing your arms the other way? Yes, especially when you are under stress or facing problems.

Dan Heath of Fast Company says that change wears people out—even well-intentioned people will simply run out of fuel.  In the following video (which is also transcribed), Dan explains why changes in behavior requiring self control are so difficult:

We are so ingrained in the way that we do things that to do it a new way, or to stop doing something, causes us to feel uncomfortable and even exhausted. We equate uncomfortable with wrong, instead of different, and there's a tendency to go back to what was comfortable.

Change is one of the most difficult things for humans to readily accept.  Charles Darwin said "It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change" which holds true for culture change. There are several factors that will help any organization make the change they make lasting.  Change agents need to recognize, understand, and interpret resistance to change and develop skills to manage it effectively.  Successful initial implementation and ongoing maintenance of process improvements requires overcoming the resistance to change.

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  1. Hi Tim,

    Good post, don't forget the twin sister of resistance to change: resentment of criticism. Even the prettiest package smells rotten to people who resent criticism.


  2. Tim
    Great post. I would also add that change agents need to understand what people need as they progress through the change process. It is different as they move through the each step and many agents try to apply the same techniques universally. Ken Blanchard has some great information on this in his Situational Leadership 2 material.

  3. Hi Tim ! In Europe, we find that people with experience resist change and likewise refuse to "unlearn" what they know thus far. This attitude brings about an anchorage on "what is proven" and a total rejection of change. Thus, people stick to their proven ideas with which they feel comfy and turn down the chance to be creative and start the chain reaction towards innovation.