Outsmarting Resistance to Change – Part 1

By Paul R. Scheele Ph.D. | Transform

This blog examines our natural inclination to resist change and what we can do to positively influence organizational change efforts.

Part 1: Resistance is Inevitable

In the Star Trek series, the alien race known as The Borg repeated the phrase “Resistance is Futile, Assimilation is Inevitable.” The human race had a different idea that saved them in the movies which could be summarized as “Resistance is Inevitable, Change is Futile.”

Good for our Hollywood heroes! But how is that working for us back here on earth in our organizations and in our personal lives? When we need our change initiatives to succeed, the “change is futile” mindset spells defeat before we get started.

It seems to be human nature to resist change efforts. A medical study showed that one in seven seriously at-risk heart patients will not change their lifestyle even when told they will die if they don’t. Why?

When things are going well in the workplace, working to maintain the status quo makes sense. When things go wrong, aside from a few problem-solving measures to make things right, there is a natural tendency to hunker down, tough it out, and wait until the problems pass. When improvement and change are required, resistance is inevitable. Why?

Authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey claim that we have a built-in “immunity to change.” This is not a new idea. Hundreds of years ago, the Declaration of Independence stated, “…all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

In other words, we would rather suffer a familiar problem than risk an unfamiliar solution and the potential difficulties we might face when making a change. But in our modern world of continuous and unrelenting change, we don’t have the time to endure our counter-productive tendency to resist change.

We need fast, effective ways to facilitate change and strategies to confront the biological and neurological hard-wiring that drive us to keep our boats from rocking. When change is required and we must adapt to new conditions, it’s helpful to know how to influence the brain and body, and how to support change for all the stakeholders involved.

In their book, Immunity to Change, Kegan and Lahey point out that there are three dimensions to our change immunity.

  1. a knowing system that organizes our reality and prevents unfamiliar ideas from entering
  2. a feeling system designed to manage anxiety about stepping into the unknown, and
  3. a change-prevention system that operates to thwart challenging aspirations.

These three dimensions described by Kegan and Lahey relate to the three capacities described by MIT professor C. Otto Scharmer in his book, Theory U. Scharmer says that in order to step into the future that is trying to emerge, we need to cultivate the capacities of an open mind, an open heart, and an open will. According to his model, the guardian of an open mind is the voice of judgment, the guardian of an open heart is the voice of cynicism, and the guardian of an open will is the voice of fear. These voices must be confronted when managing change.

Combining the extensive scholarship and practice described in Immunity to Change and Theory U, a fascinating clarity emerges about what can be done to facilitate change within our organizations. In the next 3 blog posts, we will examine each of the three dimensions and meet the “guardians” that comprise our built-in resistance to change so that we can embrace it and the future good that is trying to emerge. Fast, effective ways to facilitate change will be shared that you can put to immediate use.

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© Paul R. Scheele, Ph.D. | Scheele Learning Systems | All Rights Reserved