Case Study: Understanding Resistance to Change and How to Overcome It
The VP of Engineering in a large apparel client-corporation was extremely task driven. Meetings she held were brief, to the point, and with tremendous emphasis on task management efficiency and effectiveness. The strong focus on speed often left managers reporting to her unheard. Decisions were often made based only on the VP's perspective. Equally importantly, this extreme task focus left her reporting managers unprepared to manage their teams.
When her AVP discussed needed changes with her, the VP said everything she was expected to say. She was more than happy to develop her team. Willing to work on coaching each team member according to their strengths, thinking, and unique skills. Totally on board with deeply understanding different perspectives, exploring, and respecting the logic of others during meeting, even if it didn't make sense to her in that moment. She was provided with training and traditional executive coaching but despite all of that, she kept true to her old style. Her words were the right words but her actions and behaviors remained the same.
Her external resistance was subtle and sophisticated. Her main focus was on letting the waves of interest in her department wash off. She would patiently attend the new initiative that was asked of her (training, coaching, or the yearly conversation with her AVP) but then go back to running her department the way she thought best.
Prior to learning about how to successfully support external resistance, this type of dynamics would typically end in one of two undesirable outcomes; either giving up or confronting the VP and escalating the situation. However, we now know that the way people respond to resistance is strongly linked to a specific set of skills. Understanding which skills are required in each specific situation allows us to overcome external resistance in a positive, powerful way.
Different situations call for different skills (more about Change-Readiness Skills in future posts) but once identified, external resistance helps us pinpoint which skills are missing in each specific case. In this particular case, the VP was missing sufficient mastery of a skill called "Multiple Truths." In the absence of this skill, she saw reality in black and white. There were right ways of doing things and wrong ways of doing things and from her perspective, she held the key to deciphering which were which. Unless she could be convinced she was wrong, she was just going to listen and nod but she wasn't going to follow. People with high mastery of this skill are curious and open and practice a questioning state of mind. They recognize that knowledge is a perspective, open to interpretation and bound within the limitations individuals. They comfortably allow contradicting truths to co-exist and cooperate openly to learn from mistakes and strive to understand perspectives they disagree with. In the absence of this skill, it was very difficult for the VP to benefit from the excellent training and past support she received.
The basic recipe for supporting the VP to acquire this new skill included three components:
Identifying and practicing the specific skill of Multiple Truths.
Establishing an effective accountability structure.
Guiding the VP through the process of Unlearning her previous thinking habits and behaviors while adopting new ones (facilitating the letting go of strong, previously reinforced response patterns to make room for new ones).
At the same time, while working through tasks related to acquiring the new skill and applying it to a variety of critical situations, the VP also needed support with internal resistance. Her daily practice made it clear she was struggling to understand what the new skill meant and how it needed to be applied. She did try to avoid working through this process, just like she did before, but even after she passed through that stage, she was still subconsciously blocked. It was a new lense to see the world through and like with adjusting to new glasses, her brain literally could not see how the new skill applies. It needed support "debugging" all the noise the subconscious created to avoid seeing things more clearly. It needed guidance to create a sustainable new habit to replace previous ways of thinking and responding.
We've only recently started understanding the science behind resistance to change. There are still many misconceptions but overcoming even the most difficult resistance to change does not have to be complicated. Understanding neuroscience-applications to resistance, knowing what to look for, how to identify different types of resistance and how to overcome them makes a huge difference when it comes to successfully facilitating difficult change.
When offering coaching, team development, or organizational transformation processes in your organization, we hope you'll now recognize external resistance and internal resistance and seek to support people to overcome them. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to let us know if we can support you in any way. We invite you to check out the KCI training and certification programs, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.