I’m a management consultant and coach! One of the things I like to tell the leaders I advise is that being a change agent isn’t easy. Managing organizational change can be difficult, and is often unpopular – and that can make you unpopular too. But as I also like to say, attitudes don’t change overnight – so be resilient, build allies, and have a thick skin. Eventually, others will come along! – Name withheld
So if I may, I’d like to set the record straight.
People are not as resistant to change as you probably think.
Or at least that’s what pioneering organizational sociologist Joan Woodward concluded after studying factory workers in Great Britain in the 1960s. She observed an “almost a complete lack of resistance” to change in her research, something she herself admitted was “surprising.” In fact, some workers were troubled by an apparent lack of change, she found, interpreting this as a sign of stagnation, or organizational decline.
So what are you and the “change agents” you advise mistakenly interpreting as an affinity for business as usual?
It’s discomfort with uncertainty.
Put yourself in the shoes of those to be affected by the proposed change for a moment: What are the consequences for them?
Will it mean more work, for instance? That is, longer hours, increased demands and/or responsibilities, and therefore more stress – all perhaps without a commensurate increase in pay? Or, will it require mastering some new skill or technical proficiency? Something that will require additional training, effort, and time before they can get fully up to speed?
Or will the intended change possibly mean less for them to do, or a reduction in responsibilities? Perhaps whatever talent or expertise they do have will no longer be as valuable to the organization – and could that lead to their marginalization, a reduced potential for upward mobility, or a smaller paycheck – or perhaps even the elimination of their job altogether?
There’s a lot there for someone to “resist,” isn’t there?
Of course, for the manager who initiates any such change rarely is so much at stake. During his long tenure as CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch transformed the company in a variety of significant ways, for example. He reduced bureaucracy, streamlined organizational decision-making, shifted focus from home products to financial services, and instituted a “survival of the fittest”-performance review system. This resulted in the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs. But one organizational role that was never at risk?
Keep in mind too that some of what you’re seeing may simply be disagreement with the proposed change(s), not opposition to the idea of change more generally. Undoubtedly there were those at GE who disagreed with Welch’s initiatives. And given that some of them were later undone by his hand-picked successor, Jeffrey Immelt, they were probably right to push back. But would that have been enough to protect them? Probably not. In Winning (2005), Welch describes how he dealt with his contrarians:
“Ferret out and remove resisters, even if their performance is satisfactory.”
It’s kind of true then when you say “eventually, others will come along.” It just may be because they feel they have no other choice.
So don’t congratulate yourself and those you advise too much for being so pro-change. It’s great that you are, of course – but that really doesn’t make you any different from anyone else.
Perhaps the best way to think about all this is as follows: People are a bit like investors or venture capitalists in this regard. Just as these shareholders and other stakeholders prefer to see stability in the market, so too do workers prefer to see stability in their jobs.
So when—not if—organizational change becomes necessary, you can get people as excited about it as you by making sure it’s as much in their interest as it is in yours. And one of the best ways to do that?
Include them in the change-making process to begin with.
 Woodward, Joan. Industrial Organization: Theory and Practice. 1965. Oxford University Press, p. 48 (page number refers to 2nd edition, published 1980).
 Over the five year period from 1980 to 1985, Welch reduced GE’s payroll from 411,000 to 299,000. Of the jobs lost, 37,000 were associated with businesses GE sold off, while 81,000 were eliminated altogether. Welch’s propensity for cutting jobs earned him the nickname “Neutron Jack” for eliminating workers while leaving the buildings standing. From Wikipedia’s “Jack Welch” entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Welch. Retrieved 03-23-23.
 Welch, Jack. Winning. 2005. HarperCollins, p. 141.
[ 1 Comment ]
I understand what you’re saying, but I guess I’m still not totally convinced. The way I see it, uncertainty is associated with ANY change, so people are always going to have a problem with it. I see this all the time at my company. I guess I’m wondering how I’m supposed to apply any of this…