Resource Library Articles

The Challenge of Transformation – Part I: Understanding the Resistance

Have you ever attempted a significant change in your own attitudes or behavior?
Have you ever attempted to introduce significant change in an organization?
And have you encountered resistance to that effort?

I was invited recently by a client to engage in thinking with them about the slow progress of a culture transformation in which they’ve been engaged for two years. Here are some of the thoughts I had, which you may find helpful in understanding the resistance to your own personal or organizational transformation efforts:

Change is a challenge. Transformation (a radical shift in core attitudinal and behavioral patterns, sustained over time), is beyond a challenge; it’s traumatic.

What happens in the face of potential transformation?

Emotional reactions are stirred

First, it is vital to view the organization as an emotional system. Prior to the attempts at transformation, it could be seen to have a set of operating principles and predictable patterns of thinking and behavior. Those in the system had learned to adapt to the systemic rules, written or unwritten. This includes those who seemed to model the rules. It also includes those who seemed to defy the rules, but remained in the system. (These folks hate to think of themselves as an entrenched member, but in fact they are participants in the emotional dance that characterizes the organization – enmeshed rebels, perhaps).

At any time, the emotional system is attempting to protect these same, predictable patterns of reacting and relating. It does not matter if the patterns are productive or unproductive, healthy or unhealthy. There is a subtly coordinated momentum toward homeostasis. As Kathleen Kerr describes it: “In this emotional field powerful emotional forces are constantly at work attempting to maintain balance within the system. When events or emotional forces put the system into a state of imbalance it will behave in predictable ways in its attempt to regain a balance.”

A way of life is threatened

In another view of the resistance to transformation, David Whyte, in “The Intelligent Organization”, describes the intuitive sense one has about the risks: “Every real change means the cracking open of the identity you have so assiduously made for yourself over the years, and that’s true on a personal level as well as a corporate level.” So organizational resistance will be less mysterious to comprehend when I acknowledge that it is a mirror of my own resistance to transformation.

What is threatened is a way of life. Particularly when the transformation effort is viewed as a life-saving resuscitation effort, everything will be (or seem to be) at stake:

• All of the written and unwritten rules that govern life in the system (e.g., never argue with the boss).
• All of the reliable predictors of behavior and consequences for behavior (e.g., what happens when a mistake is made).
• All of the traditional means of measuring success and failure.
• All of the markers for recognition, status and promotion.
• All of the accepted protocols, the norms for what is considered “appropriate” behavior.
• All of the assurances that have ever been made before, either implicitly or explicitly, that this system can be relied upon for one’s future stability.
• And more.

In terms of norms, for example, the transformation effort may be threatening some of the most common practices that have typified (and choked) the system for years. It’s not that any one in the system would venture to justify these practices. In fact, many would speak passionately against them, while practicing them nonetheless.

Again, no one in the system would argue for the preservation of these practices. Yet the system’s inherent drive for homeostasis is no more or less than a mirror of each individual’s drive for the same. That is, individual human beings exhibit a defense mechanism to preserve the right to favored ways of coping, and will adopt stealth strategies for preserving that right. (Can you see this in yourself?) In the same way, the system as a whole, while explicitly espousing the need for and desirability of change, will resist efforts that threaten time-honored and acceptable practices such as these.

History and tradition are on the cutting table

What is also threatened – at least in perception if not in fact – is history and tradition. In individual or organizational transformation, people often have the sense that the past counts for nothing, that all that has been is at stake. Richard Sennett notes that, “flexible change, of the sort which takes aim today at bureaucratic routine, seeks to reinvent institutions decisively and irrevocably, so that the present becomes discontinuous with the past.” How threatening this can seem, especially to those who are most steeped in and appreciative of the past.

Genuine grief is triggered

Here is another view of the resistance, borrowed from the discipline of psychology: There is a grieving process occurring. Something is dying. Something is dying in the leader, in the organization, and in every individual who is exposed to the process (whether they choose to remain in the system or not). The traditional stages of grieving identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross are also predictable:

Denial (“This isn’t happening! It won’t last.”)
Anger (“How could you do this?”)
Bargaining (“Let’s just go this far.”)
Pain/depression (“This change hurts!”)
Acceptance (“I choose to stay and make it work.” OR “I choose freely to leave.”)

There is loss involved, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. To the extent that the workplace is a community, a family of sorts for people, transformation can begin to look like and feel like: a death in the family, an impending divorce, a love affair ending, a horrible sibling battle, desertion, etc. All of this, in turn, will trigger the memories of those kinds of events from each person’s past. To the extent that these past incidents are unresolved, the emotional reactions may be even more pronounced.

David Whyte has helped many corporations understand that it is naively unrealistic to engage in transformative efforts without talking about grief: “As soon as you get a group of people together in a room and you mention the word change, you have to know that a part of everyone in that room is terrified from that moment on, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. …(A person must) really grieve over a change that is occurring which causes a disruption in how they look at themselves. Grief is the ability of the person to go down into the underworld of the change, and face what must be faced. If you refuse to go down, the hand of reality will reach up and pull you down anyway… Some company efforts try to cover over all of this with a false positiveness.”

Whyte also talks of betrayal: “In the face of real change, even the people who institute the change will feel betrayed by it; because the change will almost certainly not keep you in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed. You are going to have to die at some point or another in a true change process. For example, are the transformation leaders ready to let go of the parent-child aspects of their leadership style?” (Can you relate to this?)

It’s all understandable!!

The many faces of resistance described here are best understood not as pathological reactions, but as normal and understandable repercussions. After all, a pattern had been established, a contract in which both or all people had agreed to a certain routine of actions and reactions, and the pattern has been broken. In that sense, trust has been violated. It simply doesn’t matter that the pattern may have been convoluted, unjust, or harmful. The fact is, it worked! In fact, the longer that it had worked, the more severe and long-lasting the reactions to changing it are likely to be.

The leader’s challenge:

As always, the fundamental task of the leader is to be conscious of and regulate his/her own emotional reactions to what is happening. More on this next time, along with strategies for holding the course.

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