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This is part 1 in a series on organizational change
Part 2: Change in Real Time: What You Need to Know As a Leader
Part 3: Without a Strategy for Change, You’re Sunk
Most people prefer stability and predictability in their lives and ministries. Consequently, proposed change causes stress for most people. This is why when faced with changes to the status quo, people usually resist at first. Moreover, their resistance will often continue and sometimes increase, until they are able to recognize that the benefits of the proposed change outweigh the accompanying stress and potential pain.
Efforts to implement change are more likely to succeed if a leader understands the many possible reasons for resistance to change.
- Lack of trust. Distrust of the people who propose change will cause resistance to it. Even when there is no obvious threat, a change may be resisted if people imagine there are hidden and ominous implications that will only later become apparent. Furthermore, mutual distrust may encourage a leader to be secretive about the reasons for change (and even about the change itself), thereby increasing suspicion and resistance.
- The perception that change is not necessary. Without an obvious need for change, people will resist it. If the current way of doing things has been successful in the past, and there is no clear evidence of serious problems, people will resist change.
When an organization has become very successful, its greatest strengths can become its greatest weaknesses by encouraging complacency and pride. The very best times can become the most dangerous. Fortified by a sense of invulnerability, the organization can become blind to its own need for significant reassessment and change. Unfortunately, the signs of a developing problem are usually unclear in the early stages, and it is easy for people to ignore, discount or misinterpret them.
- The perception that change is not possible. Even when everyone acknowledges the problem, the proposed change will still be resisted if it seems unlikely to succeed; and making a change that is radically different from anything done previously will usually appear very difficult – if not impossible – to most people. Furthermore, the failure of earlier change attempts creates cynicism and makes people doubtful whether the next attempt will succeed either. With cynical people, leaders rarely achieve successful change.
- Economic threats. Even if a change will obviously benefit the organization, it will likely be resisted by people who would suffer personal loss of income, benefits, job security or seniority. This is one of the major reasons why technological change is commonly resisted, in spite of its frequently obvious benefits. Moreover, prior downsizing and layoffs raise anxiety and increase resistance to new proposals, regardless of the actual threat.
- Relatively high costs. All change involves some cost. Familiar routines must be changed, creating inconveniences and requiring more effort. Certain freedoms may be lost. Resources are necessary to implement change, and resources already invested in doing things the traditional way will be lost. Moreover, performance invariably suffers during the transition period as the new ways are learned and procedures debugged. Consequently, if it is not possible to accurately estimate these costs in relation to the benefits of the proposed change, there will be resistance.
- Fear of personal failure. Some changes make expertise obsolete and require learning new ways of doing things. Many people will be reluctant to trade knowledge and skills they have mastered for new ones that may be too difficult to learn. Thus, proposed change will be more acceptable if it includes ample provision for training people in the new ways of doing things.
- Loss of status or power. Major organizational changes invariably result in some shift of power and status for certain individuals and groups. New strategies often require expertise that is not possessed by some of the people currently enjoying high status as problem solvers. Those who are threatened with a loss of status and power will frequently oppose the change – even when it is obviously beneficial for the organization.
- Threats to values and ideals. Threats to a person’s values will arouse strong emotions that fuel resistance to change. Moreover, if the values are embedded in a strong organizational culture, then resistance will be widespread and not isolated.
- Resentment of interference. Most people do not want to be controlled by others, and attempts to manipulate them or force change will elicit resentment and hostility. Unless people acknowledge the need for change and perceive they have a choice in determining how to change, they will resist it.
The Importance of Working with Resistance
Leaders must develop the proper attitude toward resistance to change and recognize that it is not necessarily the simple result of ignorance, inflexibility, weakness of character, or rebellion. It can be the normal defensive response of people who want to protect what they know and possess, as well as their own sense of purpose.
Indeed, sometimes the voice of resistance can serve as a signal that there are ways in which the change effort should be modified or improved. In this way, listening to those who initially resist can prevent us from taking untimely or foolish actions.
Rather than viewing resistance as an obstacle to beat down or circumvent, it is frequently more realistic and advantageous to see it as intellectual and emotional energy that can be redirected to improve change, once the opponents have been converted to supporters.
Consequently, rather than launching into lengthy self-justifications at the first sign of resistance, leaders should listen carefully, actively seeking out people’s thoughts and reactions to the proposed changes. The more that people are provided the opportunity to give input into the change process, the more they will be on board.
One of the leader’s primary instruments of change is prayerthat God will open the hearts of the people to embrace His purposes. We must recognize that people are not the enemies – Satan is the enemy (Eph. 6:10-12).
Showing respect toward those who resist builds stronger relationships, not only improving the change at hand by putting the leader in a place where he can hear ideas for improvement of his proposal, but also providing a stronger relational base for future changes (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
Furthermore, leaders should recognize that they have already worked through the personal trauma and pain of the proposed change and its implications long before they even initially present it to their constituents. Because of this, it is sometimes easy for leaders to “jump to beginnings.” Of course, this is never so easy for others who have not wrestled with the idea for as long and who are not personally as inclined to change in the first place.
Finally, leaders must realize that, just as it takes miles to turn a large ship at sea, it often takes years to implement significant change in a large organization. Dramatic moments of “revolutionary” transformation are only a small part of it. Organizational change is longer and subtler than can be managed by a single leader. It is generated from the insights of many people working to improve the whole, and it accumulates over long periods. To lead change effectively, leaders must be committed to the long haul; God is!
“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6)