Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

October 1999
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Resistance to Change – Part 1

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

The next Leadership Letters will deal with change. Leading change is one of the most difficult leadership responsibilities. It is also one of the most important. The world around us is constantly changing, and to be effective in it our organizations must change too. Organizations that do not change rapidly become irrelevant and impotent. Moreover, to fully exploit the many opportunities that lie before us requires organizations that are nimble, quick and lively. The top leadership team usually leads major change in an organization, but any member of the organization can initiate change or contribute to its success.

Efforts to implement change are more likely to succeed if a leader understands the many possible reasons for resistance to change:

1. 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.

2. 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. 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. Furthermore, if the leadership has exaggerated how well the organization has been performing, then convincing people of the need for change will be even more difficult. Even when a problem is recognized, the usual response is to make incremental adjustments in the present strategy, rather than to do something entirely different.

3. 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 the next attempt will succeed either. With cynical people, leaders rarely achieve successful change.

4. 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.

5. Relatively high costs. All change involves some cost. Familiar routines must be changed, creating inconveniences and requiring more effort. 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.

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