Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Understanding resistance to change

What's the difference between resistance to change that's driven by emotional reactivity - and resistance that's actually useful feedback?

One of the greatest challenges we all face is to manage our emotional reactions better, so the energy they produce is directed in more useful and productive ways. When we're able to do this, we function better - not just at work but in all our interactions across the board. And chances are we can be more contented in life, equipped to deal with setbacks and celebrate successes.

My previous post was about the nine predictable reactive states that people enter when faced with what their brain's fast emotional limbic system perceives as a threat.

Today I want to expand that concept to talk about how managing those states (in ourselves and in others) can help bring people along on the change journey by enabling them to act in more productive ways.
An article in this month's Harvard Business Review offers useful context to this discussion. The following excerpt is quoted from Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W. Ford's "Decoding Resistance to Change - Strong leaders can hear and learn from their critics" (added emphasis is mine, numbers added for reference and addressed in order below).
When change initiatives run aground—as they so often do—change agents can be quick to point a finger at the people who never got on board. The assumption is that they resisted a perfectly logical move, so it fell apart.

However, blaming resisters not only is pointless but can actually lead to destructive managerial behaviors. When managers perceive resistance as a threat, they may become competitive, defensive, or uncommunicative. They are sometimes so concerned with being right—and not looking bad—that they lose sight of their original goals (3). In stubbornly pushing things through without understanding the resistance, they sacrifice goodwill, put valuable relationships in jeopardy, and squander the opportunity to engage skeptics in service of a better plan. They don’t hear about missing pieces and faulty assumptions. And, in true us-versus-them fashion, they presume that only the other folks—the resisters—need to alter their behavior and that the change would succeed if not for the resisters’ irrational and self-serving actions.

It’s true that resistance can be irrational and self-serving (2). But like it or not, it is an important form of feedback. Dismissing it robs you of a powerful tool as you implement change. It takes a strong leader to step up and engage when a change effort meets with pushback. If you can gain perspective by paying attention to, understanding, and learning from behaviors you perceive as threatening (1), you will ultimately deliver better results.

Taking these highlighted parts in the numeric order I've assigned:

(1) The lattermost comment makes the useful point that reactive behaviour can easily provoke reactive behaviour and produce an escalating emotional chain reaction that undermines any chance at a productive outcome. Leaders of a change initiative therefore need to carefully monitor their own reaction to the (potentially hostile) behaviour of team members. Unmanaged, such a reactive spiral may throw the leader off kilter just at the moment when clear thinking and a level head are most urgently needed.

(2) Yes these strongly emotional reactions are irrational and self-serving - and, I would add, for good reason! They are irrational because they're driven by the emotional limbic brain, not the rational neocortex, and furthermore are geared the the ultimate self-serving purpose: one's own survival. Leaders should therefore not be surprised that emotion-fuelled resistance is both tenacious and enduring.

(3) So what would it look like if that powerful emotion-fuelled response was channelled into more productive, rational responses? And what might those responses look like?

Taking the second question first, in a team setting these more productive, rational responses take the form of eight key team roles:
  • Explorer / Motivator
  • Inspirational Coach / Facilitator
  • Promoter / Strategist
  • Practical Problem Solver
  • Creative Change Agent
  • Visionary Planner
  • Auditor / Organizer
  • Driver / Completer

Limbic vs. Rational - Reactive vs. Productive

Now how can you tell if someone is being, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass, or is genuinely engaged in the role of "practical problem solver"? Well, it pays to be able to identify whether that person is being emotionally reactive or rationally productive.

In other words, are they working from their emotional limbic brain response or from their cognitive, rational brain.

Here the comment I've numbered (3) about people who are "so concerned with being right" is instructive. When you find yourself absolutely convinced that you are right about something, there's an excellent chance you're operating from a limbic space.

This is because the limbic brain's function (to ensure your survival) dictates that it must act fast - that is to say, before all the facts are considered. This makes sense: if you stopped to take a long look at the thing that might just be a snake and it turned out in fact to be a snake, it could well have bitten you and you'd be dead before you could say, "My word! Is that a...eurk!!"

Clearly in these situations there's not a lot of room for considering alternatives and taking the time to be open to different points of view. What this looks like in an interpersonal conflict situation is there are one or more people's limbic brains screaming at them (via hormones and neurotransmitters), "Your survival is at stake! This needs to happen MY way, Right Now!!"

Does that sound like any conversation you've been involved in recently...?

The rational brain, meanwhile, evolved later and makes up the majority of our grey matter. It's the bit that distinguishes we humans from other creatures and does the tremendous cognitive heavy-lifting - the sort that allows for playing the violin, designing hybrid cars, calculating your tax return, and thinking of clever things to say in 140 characters of less on twitter. :)

By design, then, the limbic response is the classic knee-jerk reaction - act first, then consider.

Meanwhile, the rational brain is capable of weighing options and alternatives, gathering data and information - consider first, then act.

How this applies to "resistance to change"

Having made this distinction between the two sorts of behaviour (and the associated forms of resistance to change - i.e. reactive vs. productive) I hasten to add: there's no point trying to disconnect the emotional reaction to change. It WILL happen, no matter any leader's well-meaning efforts at avoidance and minimization.

The change leader's task is therefore as follows:
(1) First and foremost: manage your own reaction. Like the air hosties tell you, make sure your own oxygen mask is in place before you attempt to engage with others.

(2) Assess the most likely limbic responses of the members in your team and incorporate active measures to address the underlying survival concerns that produce these fight-flight-freeze limbic responses.

(3) Their knee-jerk reactions thus calmed, team members are now better placed to activate their rational brains and channel that emotional energy into productive action.

NB - the bonus step: engage in a facilitated process to help identify team members' particular talents. Everyone can naturally manifest at least two of the eight roles listed above - and when you have all eight covered, your team's extremely well placed to achieve extraordinary results.

tmconsultancy offers focused training programs to help you identify the emotional reactive behaviour patterns and the productive rational styles that manifest in every team. To find out more, email me.

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