In the previous post, I described resistance to change as a natural reaction to a disruption in expectations as well as feeling a loss of control. As such, resistance accompanies all major change. It doesn’t matter whether it is self-initiated or invoked by others, or if the change is perceived as positive or negative. It’s beneficial for clients if practitioners can frame something that is inevitable in a way that can be leveraged into an advantage for realizing change objectives. In that regard, this series is devoted to focusing on how resistance can be used to foster commitment to intended outcomes rather than inhibit change progress.
Three Frameworks for Understanding Resistance
One way we can help clients leverage resistance to their advantage is to provide them with frameworks to understand what’s in play when people oppose major change initiatives. The more we can demystify the dynamics of resistance for them, the better they will be able to orchestrate events and circumstances toward realization outcomes.
As I’m sure is true for you, I have models I rely on to help me diagnose resistance and inform clients about how resistance actually unfolds. I’ll offer a couple of them here and I encourage you to share with our readers some of the ones you use with clients.
In various situations, I draw on different ways to explain what happens when people withhold their support or actually push back against change. There are three models, however, that I use with clients the most:
- One describes the sequence that develops when people resist after having an initial positive reaction to change (outlined in this post).
- Another describes the sequence that develops when people react negatively to change from the beginning (to be addressed in the next post).
- A third one uses commitment as a lens through which resistance can be better understood (reviewed in the last post in this series).
There’s An Emotional Response to Positively Perceived Change
My first memory of seeing people resist a positive change was in 1969 when I served on the staff of an Army rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol abuse. I was amazed to see the high divorce rate that took place soon after soldiers entered the program and began the recovery process. I couldn’t figure out why the wife (in those days, our patients were all men) of an alcoholic would put up with her husband’s destructive behavior for years only to file for divorce as he began to regain control of his life.
What eventually became clear was that because the husband was succeeding with sobriety (what the wife had been dreaming of for years) she now had to adjust to his reemergence into the family structure. She had been making economic decisions and providing sole parental guidance to the children for a long time. But once he was fully functioning again, he wanted to participate in these activities. She finally got what she wanted, but it came with a power struggle neither of them was prepared to handle. From her standpoint, although her husband’s improved behavior and health was welcomed, she was not willing to surrender her hard-won autonomy. The marital roles and family hierarchy became subject to unexpected redefinition. The subsequent power struggle resulted in more pessimism for both husband and wife than either could recover from, which ultimately played itself out in a divorce.
Years later, when I was first helping organizations implement key initiatives, this same sort of situation reappeared. I noticed that people who originally perceived a major change as positive, but later became disenchanted, followed a separate path of resistance than those who saw it as negative from the outset.
After observing this phenomenon for a number of years, I was finally able to describe the phases people go through when they originally embrace a change perceived to be beneficial, but resist it later. The five phases are:
- Uninformed optimism
- Informed pessimism
- Hopeful realism
- Informed optimism
In the graphic below, the horizontal axis represents time, but the vertical axis reflects the degree of discomfort or pessimism felt toward the change.
Phase I—Uninformed Optimism
Marriage is a classic example of a major positive change that people think is wonderful in the beginning but then have trouble adjusting to. When people first get married, they haven’t spent much “married” time together, so they are on the left-hand side of the time continuum. And they are on the low end of the pessimism scale because they feel extremely positive about each other and their decision to be together. Instead of the “honeymoon,” I call this phase “uninformed optimism.” Think of it as naïve enthusiasm based on insufficient data.
The same is true for decisions to pursue major, highly advantageous change—they are always based on information that will later prove to be inadequate. As the change unfolds, people learn that a great deal of what they were promised does not come to pass, and much for which they were not prepared begins to take place.
Phase II—Informed Pessimism
Over time, the married couple discovers some of the real implications for their change decision. He learns how often she wants to eat out; she learns how often he wants to play golf. They begin to realize that, while their overall decision may have been a good one, there are significant downsides to their decision that they did not expect. Once again, organizations fall into the same pattern. The reorganization or new technology that appeared so perfect when the decision to proceed was finalized later turns into struggles and challenges no one saw coming.
There is no way to avoid this second phase of the process; it comes from the inevitable learning that takes place once people engage what appears to be a positive change and find out it is more difficult to execute than anticipated. “Informed pessimism” always follows uninformed optimism, and with it comes some degree of doubt and second-guessing.
The informed-pessimism stage is particularly important because every person has a certain tolerance for pessimism. If a person’s disenchantment exceeds that tolerance level, “checking out” occurs. Informed pessimism is about doubt and reluctance; checking out is about withdrawing from the change decision. Both are forms of resistance, but by the time checking out starts to take place, the dissention can have a meaningful adverse impact on realizing the ultimate desired outcomes.
Checking out manifests itself either publicly or privately. People check out publicly when they are overt about their lack of confidence in moving forward. In the marriage situation, an example of public checking out is the delivery of a blunt statement such as, “I want a divorce.” The organizational equivalent of publicly checking out takes place when people are open and explicit about their newfound discontent. They might freely state things like, “Considering what we’ve recently learned, we’d better rethink our decision to move ahead.”
The alternative is for people to check out privately by going underground with their detachment. Many couples in this situation go through the mechanics of their marriage as if everything is fine, but the genuine exchange of love, and respect for each other is gone: “What do you mean we need counseling? I don’t see any problems in our relationship.” The organizational version of this is to say, “Great idea! Let’s do that!” when in the presence of particular leaders, and “No way am I doing that!” when in front of others.
Both types of checking out jeopardize the success of a project, but the public form is clearly less destructive than the private. At least with public checking out, there is an acknowledgment of the problems. With private checking out, true concerns and emotions are dangerously hidden.
Although informed pessimism is inevitable, checking out is not. Whether or not a person checks out depends on each individual’s tolerance for pessimism. Some people are ready for a divorce within months of getting married; others can engage in decades of destructive behavior toward each other and never seriously consider separating.
Phase III—Hopeful Realism
If checking out never takes place or if it occurs openly and the problems are brought to the surface and resolved, the concerns raised during informed pessimism have a chance to taper off. When this happens, the pessimism does not suddenly disappear. Instead, it gradually lessens and people progressively move into “hopeful realism.” This phase isn’t a return to the naïve “Everything is wonderful” days of uninformed optimism; it simply means that people are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.
In the hopeful realism stage, people still have a great number of issues to handle, but they begin to feel as if “Maybe we can pull this thing off.”
Phase IV—Informed Optimism
As more and more concerns are resolved, people become increasingly confident and move into the “informed-optimism” stage. This stage reflects a stronger confidence in the change—one that has been earned through trial by fire.
Once completion is reached, individuals are stabilized in the new status quo. It is only by advancing to this stage that installation or realization is possible.
There are many implications to be drawn from the model. Here are three I emphasize with clients most often:
Significant change projects don’t experience just one pass through this model. About the time informed optimism sets in, new decisions are made about another aspect of the implementation process. If any of these determinations mean yet another departure from what was expected, in all likelihood the judgment to move ahead will spawn a new round of uninformed optimism, and the cycle will begin again.
Clients can sometimes be particularly vulnerable to “panacea merchants”…people inside and outside organizations who exploit leaders’ fantasies that few problems will accompany the implementation of badly needed change. Of course, the reality is that any change that ushers in meaningful benefits has more complications to its execution than meet the eye.
As professional facilitators of change, our responsibility is to foster “sober buying” of change by our clients, regardless of how it is being sold. Early on, when a project is still under consideration and enthusiasm is running high, we should inform the decision makers about the true costs of the change. “This is a wonderful change but nothing in life that’s this good is cheap. To fully realize the benefits you will be promising the board, there are some extremely high financial, emotional, and political costs involved in the implementation that you’ll need to be prepared to address. For example….”
Helping your clients soberly buy change (meaning being as informed as possible) not only increases the likelihood that they will get through the informed-pessimism stage, it establishes early on whether or not they have the resolve and/or the resources to move through the entire process. But there is also a risk associated with this approach. If you accurately and honestly portray the real price of change, your client may not attempt it. Many leaders are only interested in a significant endeavor because they don’t have a clue of what the real price tag is for their aspirations.
Here is a final note about sober buying of change. If, after ensuring your client takes a hard look at as many implementation difficulties and costs as possible, they still want to proceed ahead with the project, there is one more responsibility you have. Do what you can to ensure they recognize that all the due diligence in the world can’t completely prepare them for true transformational change. If, despite the challenges, they want to continue, it means they have limited their informed optimism vulnerability, but not eliminated it. Even with all the sobering information they now have, the actual experience of bringing their project to full realization will be much more difficult than they can see at this point. If they advance forward, they should do so, knowing that there is much left they don’t know. They will be surprised by the many unanticipated barriers and delays that lie ahead, but with your warning, they may not be caught off-guard as much when these surprises occur.
Beyond Change Execution
Our profession is played out in organizational settings, but since we are ultimately facilitating humans in transition, the messages we convey apply to personal change as well as social-level transitions. When using this model with clients, I try to leave them with more than just a reliable description for how enthusiasm for organizational change can turn into resistance. Whenever possible, I look for opportunities to convey broader potential utilization.
For example—many people devote a great deal of their lives trying to hit “home runs” (solutions that represent tremendous benefit, but that are relatively inexpensive and pose little risk). This model suggests that anytime we find answers in our personal as well as organizational lives that seem to fit these criteria, in all likelihood it is an illusion. Anything of real value has a price tag. We are not obligated to buy what we say we want, but if we do, an invoice will soon follow. Naiveté—thinking that perfection sought can be inexpensively obtained—often leaves us unprepared for the inevitable doubt and disenchantment (resistance) that develops after we start the journey and the bills come due.
The lesson here is, “Be careful of what you pray for because you might get it.”
The Bottom Line
There are no panaceas when it comes to major change in our lives (regardless of the setting). Whenever we embark on significant endeavors that look extremely positive at the beginning, we are probably going to find that they are more difficult and expensive than we anticipated. If the financial, logistic, emotional, or relationship cost turns out to be too high, we can withdraw from the decision. On the other hand, if the doubt and subsequent pessimism that inevitably arises does not exceed our tolerance level, we have a greater chance of resolving our concerns and moving ahead. One thing is certain for all of us; we either pay for getting what we want, or we pay for not getting what we want. But we will pay.
My thanks to consultant and poet Don Kelly for his insight and willingness in 1974 to introduce me to this way of viewing the negative implications of positive change.