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#Change resistance in others is proportional to our own resistance to change one’s mental model (#stwg #systemsthinking)

I think you will spend 320 seconds reading this post

Most Change Management activities are geared toward informing, explaining and training people into the change that ought to be done. It’s more or less Coercion Management to me (they conveniently share the same initials by the way).

There’s also the saying that goes “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed“. How true!

It occurred to me that the change resistance we most often sense in others may indeed be the reflection of our own resistance to change our mental models with regard to the situation that needs to be changed.

Which comes down to the assumption (a mental model as well) that there is a reality “out there” and that some view of it may be right when that of others may be wrong (the changer here supposing to have the right – or a righter – view of the situation and thus being allowed and empowered to force the change onto others).

Indeed, the more we push our (unilaterally designed) change, the more people resist. How come? I see two main reasons for that:

  • lack of people involvement in designing the change, with various consequences
  • personal belief to one view of reality only, violating the Law of Requisite Variety (Ross Ashby).

Lack of people involvement in designing the change

The first reason why people may resist change may be because they feel they don’t have been involved in designing it. As the change is obviously impacting them (or there wouldn’t be any problem), they feel concerned and want to know more. I see two consequences of not involving people in a change:

  • Ego kicks in and gets in the way
  • No mental model built for it

Ego kicks in and gets in the way

The most obvious change resistance may be the one which has ego as its origin. By not involving people in a change that impacts them, they feel neglected and disrespected, which triggers their egotic reaction. Whether it was feasible or not to involve them has indeed few impact.

No mental model built for the change

The other most obvious reason for the change resistance is that people may not have time to think the change through. As a consequence, they don’t see the reasons and they don’t see themselves going through the change… In short, they didn’t build a mental model of the change prior to it, which triggers some ancient defense mechanisms (lizard brain and the like). The Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief model is traditionally associated with this.

Personal commitment to one view of reality only

There’s what I feel a more profound problem with forced change which may deal with the fact that most people assume a one view only of reality: their’s.

Lack of Requisite Variety

In fact, any quick thinking will reveal that any situation is necessarily different given the point of view from which it is considered. Different people come from different background, have different past experiences, have different roles in the organization about to undergo a change, have different ways of dealing with the situation, the change itself, etc. Instead of just one, there are as many views of a change as there are stakeholders.

So, there isn’t such a thing as a “one view” of a situation, except maybe the view that takes all views into consideration, which is what Systems Thinking is about (well, not only). So any change built around only one view of a situation is necessarily incomplete and doomed to fail. It may deal with the hard parts of the organization (7S of Organizational Change: Shared Value, Strategy, Structure, Systems, Staff, Style and Skills) but it cannot account for what’s needed from the people (soft part) impacted by the change, for the simple and most evident reason explained above: that they are all different from the people designing the change (background, experience, etc.).

At best, the change addresses the 6 of the 7S but will be short on the Staff (people) side (information, explanation, training, etc.). Of course, this can be taken into account and managed once the change has begun (just-in-time management of complaints), but there will be a negative debt that will need to be overcome.

At worst, the change plan will miss some crucial analysis and will fall flat once in deployment step, because it will just not be adapted to the requisite variety of the system it aims to change.

Today’s organizations are complex: lots of links, people and interactions to be taken into account that cannot fit into one (or even a few) people’s mind.

Indeed, most organizations today are managed from the complexity paradigm where top management gives some general strategies and lower levels of management and employees adapt it to the local requirements (local requisite variety) as they best know it because they work with it all day long. It may even be the case that management knows its limits: it can’t deal with the required variety of all the bits and pieces needed to run the strategy.

Yet, curiously, when it comes to changing the organization, top management feels in control again and imagine it can decide for everything without consulting impacted people.

Now, speaking about it, it occurs to me that management sometimes doesn’t describes everything but people feel threatened by the lack of low-level description. Indeed, management would probably have imagined people taking charge of this lower level stuff by themselves, but it ends up that they don’t.

Which strikes back as “they resist” when it may very well be a case of “they’re used to checking their brain at the door because of past management behavior I had”. A strange thought that probably never occurs in top management’s heads…

Management resistance triggers people resistance

Lastly, coming back to the first idea of this article, a one view only of reality in management’s head is a sure way of triggering people’s resistance. A one view of reality (whether intended or not) surely violates the law of requisite variety but the more the manager will stick to it, the more it will trigger reactions in other people.

Complexity mandates agility to adapt to what emerges from the system. Rigidity increases hurdles. To influence a complex system, you have to dance with it, not try to control it.

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