Overcoming Resistance to Change

Like the typewriter, the Blackberry and the VHS tape, today’s cutting-edge technologies may soon find themselves relegated to the museum shelves of history, replaced by new and improved technologies. The same is true in business. If leaders refuse to change, they will soon find themselves increasingly irrelevant.

New technologies have radically altered the way we communicate, gather information, and make decisions. Globalization and generational differences are shifting the balance of power and significantly impacting how work is structured. In these days of accelerating change, a leader’s ability to adapt and help others change is paramount. Yet, many of us strongly resist change. Why?

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in their Harvard Business Review article, The Real Reason People Won’t Change argue that resistance to change is more than personal opposition or inertia. Rather, people resist change because of hidden competing commitments. A competing commitment is a subconscious belief that competes with the organization’s goal or the stated goal of a change initiative.

For example, a competing commitment related to working with another department might be, “If we help them be successful, they will get a larger portion of the budget next year, leaving our department with fewer resources.” Or “The goals for this project are much too aggressive. We have no chance of meeting them, so I’ll just coast along until things settle back to normal.”

Great leaders uncover the competing commitments of their people and coach them to action to overcome their resistance to change. Kegan and Lahey suggest a five-step process to address competing commitments:

  1. Notice and record current behavior. Observing the results (or lack thereof) when people act on their assumptions challenges the beliefs of people who are resistant to change.
  2. Look for contrary evidence. Often people only pay attention to data that confirms their deeply held beliefs (or biases). Consciously looking for evidence that contradicts assumptions helps individuals gain new insights they would otherwise miss.
  3. Explore the history. Considering the events or situations that created a competing commitment, offers insight into the dynamics and issues related to the change initiative.
  4. Test the assumption. Choosing to operate in a different manner for a limited amount of time or in a limited area allows individuals to gain confidence in their ability to change.
  5. Evaluate the results. What worked well? How did the change help? What adjustments to the approach should be used?

This 5 steps uncover and address hidden competing commitments. The information gained in this process helps leaders and organizations adapt to the constantly changing environment and overcome the natural resistance to change.