From Resistance to Resilience: Why Change is Great

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If you’re tempted to resist change, think of the dinosaurs. They were the biggest, strongest creatures to ever roam the Earth, but they couldn’t adapt. Cockroaches, on the other hand, existed 112 million year before the dinosaurs – and will probably outlive us, because of their ability to survive in any environment.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,” said Charles Darwin. And that’s just as true for us as we navigate the seismic shifts that are shaking the business world. Consider this:

  • The technological shiftArtificial intelligence, machine learning, 3D printing and other advances are changing all industries, rendering some jobs irrelevant, and redefining every stage from manufacturing to marketing.
  • The structural shift. Company structures are changing their structures to smaller and more teams, relying more heavily on outsourcing and telecommuting. With globalization comes a greater emphasis on diversity and new challenges such as managing remote teams.
  • The leadership shift. As work becomes more structured around teams, soft skills like communication, negotiation, empathy and multi-disciplinary thinking are just as important as technical expertise and work experience.

Am I resisting the changes?

Change is never comfortable. Intellectually, you understand why the business world is changing, but that doesn’t stop you from being stressed by the new job requirements, threatened by new hires, confused by changing management directions, or inconvenienced by new processes. This can lead even the most competent people to resist and resent change.

Tony V. met that resistance when he was asked to lead the engineering department of a solar energy company. “I immediately asked for more structure and documentation, especially since we were expanding so quickly and had to be answerable to investors,” he said. However, the older engineers complained to management that the meetings and reports added to their already hectic workload. One of them even told the CEO, “What do you want us to do, make documents or make money?”

Carmela S. was brought in by a publishing company to lead its transition from print to digital. She said meetings often felt emotionally charged, as people bickered over new job functions, questioned research and data, and closed ranks versus new members of the team. “It was stressful because you couldn’t really say what you need to say – you had to think about how you should phrase your feedback so they wouldn’t overreact.”

Sam R. saw a completely different scenario when he joined a family conglomerate. He’d been pirated from an international startup that had a go-getter culture (“Our motto was to create and innovate every day!”) and was told to initiate similar programs. From Day 1 he was met with reasons why his ideas wouldn’t work. “How can I change their revenue and results when I can’t change their people?”

What do I do to overcome office resistance?

“What employees resist is usually not technical change but social change—the change in their human relationships that generally accompanies technical change,” says Harvard Business Review, citing a study by Ester Coch and John R.P. French (Human Relations, 1948) that showed the reactions of factory workers as they learned a new procedure. The group that was simply informed of the change showed hostility towards the supervisor, got entangled in conflict with the methods engineer, and deliberately slowed down in productivity. In fact, 17% quit in the first 40 days.

Researchers felt that the reactions were rooted in fear. “When the management called them into the room for indoctrination, they were treated as if they had no useful knowledge of their own jobs. In effect, they were told that they were not the skilled and efficient operators they had thought they were, that they were doing the job inefficiently, and that some “outsider” (the staff expert) would now tell them how to do it right. How could they construe this experience except as a threatening change in their usual working relationship?”

However, the groups that were given a chance to discuss the change and invited to give their feedback on how it worked showed no hostility and made less mistakes during the implementation. Why? They didn’t feel threatened by the change. “[They] were being treated as a person with some valuable skills and knowledge and some sense of responsibility about [their] work.”

“In Grow, we practice what we preach,” states Rudi Ramin, Grow CEO. “As a startup, trying something new and innovating is in our DNA as team. The things we attempt are not for the faint of heart but our regular Team Retrospectives allow us to give and receive feedback as a team, and we make sure to participate to fully reflect on them together and come up with ways of doing better while moving forward.”

Let’s change and grow together

Lily P. faced the same challenges of Tony, Carmela and Sam when she became technical lead for a global commerce platform. She was just 32, much younger than any of the other department heads and even some of her direct hires. But in 3 months, she feels she’s gained the trust of her team and colleagues.

“I didn’t go there with big suggestions. I spent my first weeks trying to understand what they needed from me. I met with everyone, asked for their ideas, and got a feel for their business. We all sat down and plotted what to prioritize and set goals based on what they wanted to accomplish.”

Lily also tried to get to know her team better, allotting the first 10 minutes of every meeting just asking about their day or what they did that weekend. In many meetings, she would just sit back and watch the dynamics – gestures, body language and even the flow of conversations offered her an insight of everyone’s personalities and strengths. For colleagues who worked remotely – half of the company is based in other countries – she insisted on video teleconferences and did many one-on-one calls. “Large calls tend to be dominated by one or two personalities. Of course I would still do group chats, but I make it a point that I have one short call with everyone at least once a week, just to check in and connect on a personal level.”

However, Lily feels that what helped most was what she said to her team during one of their first meetings. “I don’t have all the answers or ideas. We’re all learning the new technology and consumer market together, and I need you to speak up and share what you know, and freely raise questions and concerns. We can all learn and grow together.”

She still sees pockets of resistance, but she firmly believes that positivity snowballs. “If you just keep reaching out and encouraging the right culture, more people will get on board, and the change happens organically. You can’t force people to trust you or to change the way they work, but you can convince them by experience and example that the change is for the good.”

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