Conquering resistance to change

  • Published
  • By Col. Diana Atwell
  • 42nd Medical Group commander
"Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become" (Unknown).

Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century events have often generated the need for organizational change. We all understand that change must occur in order to progress and leaders are charged with creating an environment that promotes change.

In 1513, Machiavelli wrote, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things ... The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old ways, and gains only lukewarm support from those who will prosper under the new." In other words, change agents have challenging but valuable roles.

So what makes change so difficult? The biggest reason comes from the perception of the loss of something of value, or a disagreement on the benefits of change. Constancy or the "status quo" is actually quite comforting to many people. Immediate resistance to change is often the first response leaders observe. How leaders handle resistance can make the difference between success and failure. To use a medical paradigm, knowledge and understanding of grieving processes can help supervisors empathize and understand the changes their staff may be going through when they are asked to make significant changes.

In 1960, J. Bowlby described three phases of grieving: the urge to recover a lost object, disorganization and reorganization.

In the first phase, one tends to verbalize feelings of disbelief and anger. Often this anger is displaced or projected toward those felt responsible. Also, in this phase people tend to focus on their own immediate best interests and not those of the whole. In phase two they realize the change is permanent. Physical symptoms of stress may appear in this phase. In phase three people stop focusing on holding on to the past and establish new goals that help them move forward. It is important to understand that people pass through these phases at different speeds based on their past life experiences.

In the event of significant change, leaders should assist their staff by providing the necessary information, guidance and coaching before the change ever occurs. Education, communication and observation will be your most important tools. Talk with your staff regarding the impending changes and its effects. Present the research and facts.

Building and following an internal communications plan will be a valuable asset in the execution of change. Leaders who have a structured plan for communicating important organizational messages face-to-face with first-line supervisors have an advantage. 

Once the decision to change has been made, stand firm with the decision despite resistance. Remember to always ensure your new processes remain intact. If not followed up, organizations can slip back into old ways of doing things. Provide strong positive feedback when signs of accepting change are visible.

At the 42nd Medical Group, we have revamped and enhanced numerous processes over the past year in order to better serve our customers. We will continue to make changes for the benefit of our customers and welcome suggestions.