If everyone is happy, you're doing something wrong
By Michael J. Berens

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"The only thing that stays the same is change." With that catchy little lyric, Melissa Etheridge succinctly summed up one of the favorite mantras of leadership development consultants: In the world of business, change is the only constant. It has a nice Zen quality about it, don't you think?

INDUSTRY PULSE

How does your organization typically react to change?
  • 1. Positively
  • 2. Negatively

By now, though, it has become something of a cliché — and an overused one at that. Still, like all good maxims, it contains a profound truth. As does its corollary, which does not get repeated as often: Change hurts.

Leaders are all too familiar with the yin and yang of change. Change is necessary, and change is disruptive. They live with it every day. You might say change is their job: to instigate change, to embrace and foster it, to recognize which way the currents of change are flowing, to imagine how change could be changed. It is an awesome responsibility, regardless of the size of the organization or the level of authority you hold. There are so many ways that change can go wrong or, worse, go nowhere at all.

If you've ever had a change initiative stall or implode, you know how hard it can be to affect change. A recent blog on the Harvard Business Review website has some excellent pointers on how to help ensure the success of an organizational change effort. It's well worth a few minutes of your time. I won't try to summarize it here, but I do want to elaborate on one of the points made under the tip "Expect backlash": "an intense response — positive and negative — is a sign that people are taking the idea seriously."

It's natural to assume that if our idea is a good one, people will respond positively — maybe even show a bit of enthusiasm. But that is rarely the case with a change initiative. To bring about change in an organization you have to get people to change, and not everyone is comfortable with that.

Most obviously, some people have a stake in keeping things the way they are. The proposed change may affect their authority, power or clout in the organization or their part of it. It may require them to alter the way they do their job, possibly even to be trained or retrained. They may view the change as an implied criticism of their performance. These situations usually can be spotted and addressed readily.

Less obvious are the more subtle reasons why people resist change. Returning to our lesser maxim stated earlier, change hurts. Busy workers may not disagree with the change but dread the thought of the disruption it will bring and how that will affect their schedules and workload. Others may believe the change will compromise their values or work ethic. Still others may feel that the leadership has broken trust with them by changing the rules of the game.

These types of responses can be much harder to deal with, in part because the employees themselves may not be aware of why they feel resistance to the change. They may be critical of any proposal or respond defensively when first confronted with the idea of change itself. It may require taking them through a series of steps — getting comfortable with the idea of change, accepting that change can be positive, and, finally, accepting the proposed change — before they are fully on board with the new initiative.

Meeting resistance to change is not a bad thing. In fact, it is to be expected. Much worse is to have one's proposal met with complacency or the all-too-familiar "we've tried that before and it didn't work." That may be a sign that your proposal is perhaps not as much of a change as you thought.

On the contrary, as the HBR article points out, an intense negative reaction to a proposed change can be a leveraging point to instigate change, a first step in the inevitable disruption. Or it can be the start of a dialogue that may eventually refine your idea and convert antagonists into supporters.

So the next time you propose a change, observe the reaction of those in the room. If everyone seems to be in agreement, don't pat yourself on the back. Instead, ask yourself, what am I doing wrong?

Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management.