September 29, 1999
We’ve been hearing it for decades: People resist change, especially people in organizations. Managers, consultants and business academics have consistently added to this “reality” as they have personal experience after experience that supports their perceptions.
Organization development consultants – those people who are charged with facilitating large scale change, corporate culture change or system transformation – are constantly frustrated by the elastic nature of change programs. Months after expensive and heroic efforts to replace systems, change paradigms or install new values and cultures in organizations, things seem to return to “normal” in so many situations that nearly everyone involved becomes depressed, despairing and disillusioned. These failed change programs often give rise to additional cynicism, adding to the Dilbert-ization of the workplace.
Why do people resist change in the workplace? Are they stubborn, unimaginative, stuck in the old ways or any of the other explanations we hear about? Or is there some other force or group of forces at work – forces less familiar to us?
The facts are that change efforts often fail. Old ways resurface, despite expensive and labor-intensive efforts to implement new ways. Those are the facts. But are the widely-held conclusions accurate? Or are they being inaccurately assessed?
From personal experience, I can say that emotional attachments, especially ones that I hadn’t been aware of, have been extremely elusive and far more compelling that I ever would have imagined. Any unconscious attachment can be an incredibly powerful force since it has deep emotional roots and resides in the shadows. It’s almost as if we become slaves to these unconscious attachments.
The challenge is how can one severe or release an attachment when one isn’t even aware of it? How can one free oneself from one’s slave master when one isn’t even aware of being enslaved? My personal challenge was (and continues to be) to constantly become more aware of myself and the different parts of myself – those parts that held onto those attachments, which became conscious once I brought awareness into that part of me that was holding on.
One of our most basic drives as people, particularly men, is to be seen as competent and knowledgeable in front of our peers. In some cases, it is more an issue of avoiding being seen as incompetent or ignorant. Once people learn how to engage with a certain system – a way of relating, working together, getting things done – they feel comfortable, self-assured and reasonably competent. Another way of saying this is that they no longer feel uncomfortable, or afraid that they may look bad. They look like they know what they are doing. They’ve achieved a level of perceived competence and believe they know what they are doing. They’ve achieved some agreement for their image or persona as “one of the guys” and can relate to their co-workers as peers.
The energy it took to get to this level of competence, appearance, comfort and agreement was no only quantitative but it was emotionally taxing as well. People have an emotional “investment” in the “way things are done” as if they have “purchased” it with hard-earned currency – emotional currency. To some degree, they’re right….they have invested a piece of themselves in this way that they’re being asked to change.
People also feel like they belong, one of Maslow’s basic human needs which follows closely behind primal survival needs.
All of these elements represent strong emotional attachments for most people. And, like my own situations in the past, mostly unconscious emotional attachments at that.
When anyone comes along and suggests changing the way things are done, even if these new ways are obviously improvements for the way the company operates in the world, it can mean a threat to these emotional attachments, these unconscious emotional attachments. Intellectually knowing that the changes are for the better and the emotional attachments to the old ways are different kettles of fish.
Proposed changes to the status quo are a threat to people’s comfort, their images, the way they are seen. That is, the changes could be seen as a threat to their “belonging needs.” They could come across as looking stupid, or inept, or incompetent – something that can often be a much more deeply-embedded fear than almost any other motivation, even the success of the company.
Sound irrational? Well, emotional motivations are rarely rational. Emotions rarely make sense to the mind. Furthermore, emotions run us far more than we think they do, especially unconscious ones – those emotional motivations that were instilled in us at very early ages. These are the motivations that we rarely question or call into conscious awareness.
Next time you hear someone attribute the failure of a radical change program in an organization to people’s resistance, give a thought to the power of emotional attachments people may have to the old way and what they need to give up. Think about how they will look after the changes are implemented. Be sure that any attempt to make big changes are accompanied by attention to everyone’s comfort with the new system, the new ways, and that they come across just as competent and knowledgeable as they were under the old system.
Recognize the power of unconscious emotional attachments to the old ways and what those old ways mean to everyone involved. And, remember, without awareness of an emotional attachment one can hardly let it go willingly.
John E. Renesch is a San Francisco writer, futurist, and business philosopher. To contact him call 415-437-6974 in the U.S. More information about him and his work can be found on the Web at John Renesch.
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