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Is Change Resistance a Myth or Does it Really Exist?

business change management change and transformation change projects culture engagement mindset solutions Jul 14, 2022
is business change resistance a myth
Let me be clear from the start, on the issue of Change Resistance, I am a sceptic.
I am not sure Change Resistance does exist. I hear a lot about it, but I have been directly involved in a lot of programmes and projects and I have never actually seen it in real life. So as a result I am a little sceptical because surely I would have seen it somewhere by now. It reminds me of something that happened regularly in my childhood.


I come from a reasonably large extended family because my mother was one of five siblings so I have quite a lot of cousins and I remember my father driving one of my younger cousins mad by telling her that there were fairies at the bottom of her garden. They had a large garden and there was a particular part of it which he declared was the home of the fairies. Now she knew she didn’t believe him, even as quite a small child, because she hadn’t seen them. She also knew that he what he was telling her was compelling as he could point out where they lived and how they moved around the garden unseen. He could point out parts of the garden that might have made sense if they did exist. So, she was confused but sceptical because she hadn’t seen them. I could see her wavering from believing to not believing every time we visited, and I feel the same about Change Resistance.

People tell me compelling stories of Change Resistance but when I investigate, I find the same facts with a different cause. So I start to wonder, does Change Resistance actually exist?

One of the occasions that I was told an individual was change resistant, was in the case of Claire (not her real name).

I was working on a transformation of a directorate and we were looking to speed up the co-creation of the solution by pulling together a team who would step away from the business for three months to co-create the entire design together. I was discussing the potential make-up of the team with a group of the directors when Claire’s name came up as a possible member. “You don’t want to include her”, the sponsoring director said. “She’s resistant to change”. I was waiting for the director to elaborate but he and everyone else in the room had dismissed the idea and moved on, leaving her firmly out of the team.


lonely tree in field


However I wanted to know more about Claire so I brought them back to the topic and asked what the pros and cons of including her was and in summary she was recognised as a subject matter expert in an area of the finance systems that no one else knew much about, but she had really pushed back hard against change in the past and if she was included we would have no hope of hitting our three month target. I suggested that they left that problem to me and she was included, with pretty much all the directors thinking I was shooting myself in the foot.

However, to shorten the story slightly, once I got to know her over the initial days of the design project I realised that her deep expertise in that murky part of the finance system had led her to identify legitimate issues with previous projects and predict implementation failure because key elements of the solution design, hadn’t properly considered her complex area. But instead of listening and amending the solution or the implementation of it, the previous project leads had labelled her “change resistant” and a bit of a trouble maker, and gone ahead anyway. Then at the point of the project failing instead of acknowledging that she might have had a point, they blamed her for the failure of the implementation because of her change resistance. This was obviously entirely unfair but in subsequent projects she had put forward fewer and fewer views, which were still not listened to and the related projects were unsuccessful as a result.

So, by the time Claire got seconded into my three month design project for the directorate transformation, she was understandably very wary of saying anything in a change project. So on day three, I made sure we sat together at lunch and had a nice normal chat about life, in case that would help her contribute. It didn’t.

At the end of the day five she was still not talking. I didn’t know why but I knew from her body language that she hadn’t been happy with some of the decisions taken.

At the beginning of the second week I did a wall of truth exercise looking at what we could learn from previous projects but she still didn’t really engage, so at the break I said we would leave the outputs up on the wall for the remainder of the day and that people should add things they hadn’t wanted to say in public.

By the time we came back from coffee there were lots of great points on the board, including some from Claire but not limited to her. A lot of them were genuine concerns about not being listened to, so when we came back I said we’d learn from some of these past mistakes and review our first weeks output in the light of what wouldn’t work for the different areas. I asked each of the people in turn and was careful not to ask Claire early on until she had seen that this project genuinely wanted to fix the solution, so it worked for every part of the directorate before implementing it. We found problem after problem, and we tweaked and changed the solution as we went through and in the end we came to Claire and she spoke about the issues she saw and we listened and then tweaked and changed the solution to resolve them.


sun bursting from behind clouds


It was like the sun coming out from behind the rain clouds, and I was so grateful.

Not just because of what Claire said but because the process of trying to get her engaged had then surfaced huge numbers of issues and inside a day we had immeasurably improved the solution, and had also become a proper project team delivering something we could all get behind.

She was misunderstood, blamed and side-lined but she was in no way resistant to change. She just wanted it to work, and ultimately don’t we all!

In the years before and since that project I have come across many examples where people told me about change resistant individuals, teams, departments or occasionally whole divisions, and each of the examples is a different story with different backgrounds and different outcomes, but there is not a single instance of what I would call Change Resistance among them.

So is it possible that when we don’t want to stay curious, listen intending to understand people, and genuinely engage with people who seem disconnected to the project, that we just label them as change resistant and then move on with implementing our projects which will be less successful as a result?

If this has made you think twice about Change Resistance then this month’s masterclass “Unpicking Change Resistance” is perfect for you to hear more. Sign up here

And if you think I am wrong and you have met truly change resistant individuals or groups then please let me know, because as I said at the top of the blog, I am sceptical but I am not sure that I am right, and I am happy to hear that I am wrong. Let’s discuss.


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