The Stages of Change Acceptance and Ways to Affect Change
Everyone who's ever been in the role of Change Agent knows that it can be as lonely as anyplace on the planet, especially in organizations where change is not readily accepted. There is rarely a doubt in the Change Agent's mind about what needs to be done or the impact that change can have. I once worked for a very smart CFO who used to say, "Different is not always better, but better is always different." As a Change Agent, myself, this has become my mantra.
But not everyone believes in change, the Change Agent, or the Change Agent's vision of what needs to be done or how. So, for the people in organizations, there are fundamentally two questions, "Should I support the Change Agent's and his/her plan?" and "Should I do everything I can to prevent the Change Agent from being successful?" Of course these are the extremes and the truth and the ultimate decision probably lies somewhere in-between.
Companies' Approaches to Change
Companies approach change in different ways. There are organization where change is relatively easy because it is mandated from the top. There are organizations where change is more difficult, but change is still accepted as part of the normal course of business. Some organizations are "disrupters" within their industries and are thus comfortable with change and embrace it as a competitive advantage. And, some organizations are either comfortable with their business and their industry or have the luxury of not worrying about change and maintaining the status quo. Finally, there are the companies who need to change and should change, but respond to their burning platform by roasting marshmallows. Those are the companies who go away, the price of innovation in the marketplace.
A client once described their approach to change as a four-stage cycle, similar to the stages of grief. The Change Agent introduces a new idea, then:
Stage One - Kill the Change Agent. As a collective or individual resister, the company's culture bonds together to discredit the Change Agent and to demonstrate how the Change Agent is out of touch. To support the goal, the resisters will either directly or indirectly build the case that the Change Agent's experience, no matter how great, is completely irrelevant to the company. Finally, the resisters may discredit the Change Agent using some good old stand-bys: integrity, trustworthiness, ethics, others.
Stage Two - Kill or Discredit the Idea. Once the realization sets in that the Change Agent is not going away, the resisters shift to discrediting the idea. They acknowledge that the idea should be considered, but look for every reason why it won't work and work diligently to collect data and build arguments to ensure the idea will die before implementation can begin.
Stage Three - Go Along Reluctantly. Once the idea is deemed to have merit enough to receive funding, the resisters go along and agree to participate knowing full well that the idea will not succeed. After all, they have not changed their opinion about the idea or the Change Agent, but realize that they need to look like they are supportive long enough for time to prove that the idea will fail.
Stage Four - Claim Ownership of the Idea and Celebrate Success. Finally, once the idea succeeds and the change is implemented, resisters claim victory and remind the organization that it has been their idea for years, they just haven't been able to convince management to implement it. They claim to be relieved to have finally pushed the idea over the line. They relish in their pride for having the perseverance to stick with the idea long enough to see it succeed. Finally, they bask in the glow of their success. THEY OWN THEIR VICTORY!
Options for the Change Agent
Change Agents have many options for how to deal with resistance to change. Unfortunately (or fortunately) none of the options involve kung fu, judo or karate - meaning, unless you're a ninja, you can't take out the people who are trying to undermine you or your efforts, no matter how disappointing that news might be to you. Change Agents also don't have the option of dropping the change altogether - it's not in their DNA and not why their companies hired them. So, the Change Agent gets to deal with the resistance - it's part of the job and what makes Change Agents proud. There are three main options for the Change Agent. They include:
Modify the Approach or the Solution. Successful Change Agents understand the totality of their ideas and the change they want to affect. Given this, they understand where opportunities exist to compromise and still achieve the end goal. Compromise on the "fringes" allows the Change Agent to acknowledge and be adaptive the uniqueness of the culture and the organization. It also provides the opportunity to include others' ideas in the final solution, a key to collaboration and consensus building. Compromise and inclusion, when possible, make for better solutions. I, for one, have always believed that having more ideas and inputs makes for a better solution - this runs counter to the "too many cooks in the kitchen argument." Finally, compromise is critical in helping to convert resisters into supporters.
Give the Resister a Bigger Role in the Solution. I have seen many resisters become supporters when they are given ownership of the problem and responsibility for finding the solution. Give resisters a leading role on the design team and make them responsible for communication and/or championing the new idea/solution. Let resisters shape the way the idea is rolled out to the organization or give the resister an opportunity for a "stretch goal" to drive the change. All of these are ways to include the resister in the solution and get them to stop focusing on resisting the change. Make them accountable and give them the opportunity to succeed and be seen as successful and they will, possibly, themselves become Change Agents. OK, maybe not, but giving them some "skin in the game" will force them off the sidelines and engage them in trying to achieve a goal. Think of this as a way to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
A natural enmity will always exist between those who want and like change and those who hate change and crave the status quo. Both are valuable to organizations. The key to success is engagement, collaboration, and communication. As a Change Agent, it's hard to see this when you're taking the body blows associated with driving the change. And as resisters, it's hard to imagine why we would or should ever fix what's not broken. Successful change lies somewhere in between. So hang in there, embrace change and Change Agents, convert resisters and achieve success that allows both to bask in the glow of achievement.