I’ve been exploring the 16 Resistors of change in more details as we look at how to segment and overcome the inertia. Today i’m looking at four aspects of resistance that sit under the heading of ‘Behaviour’. These are ‘habit’, habitual responses triggered by familiar situations, ‘elasticity’, which is about understanding where the flex is within an organisation and where the rigidity sits, ‘reward’, which is about understanding the reward and reputation environment, and finally ‘performance’, which is where we discover where the rehearsal spaces sit. This is part of the wide body of work i’m pulling together into the new book, which will be about Organisational Change in the Social Age.
It’s a cognitively efficient behaviour to evolve habits: habitual responses to triggers in the environment or our communities. Habit lets us respond having done the thinking in advance, but for that very reason, it’s not always a usefully adaptive behaviour. Habitual responses can reinforce the lethargy, promoting and propagating outdated modes of behaviour or old stories. This is not intentional resistance, but it’s the resistance that kills change.
We see it ourselves in our own behaviours: your well intentioned ambition of losing a kilo is sabotaged by your habitual morning routine of picking up a croissant and latte. The response to a particular person is to role our eyes. The way we are triggered to react to specific and replicable events.
To overcome habitual resistance, we have to go through three stages: first, we have to learn to recognise when our response is a triggered one, to move the response from unconscious back to a conscious one. Then, once we have it in our conscience, we can prototype new responses. Once we find more agile behaviours that work, responses more suited to the moment, we can afford for them to become unconscious again, providing we remain ever vigilant to the onset of inertia and lethargy.
To do this in ourselves is hard: to evince this response in others, harder. And yet that’s what we have to do to overcome organisational inertia and resistance.
One approach to this is using personal narratives: narrating our decisions as we take them, with a view to understanding the underlying process. The identifying of triggers may be internal, or can be pointed out to us by others, an external identification, although that’s always more likely to be met by denial or resistance. None of us like to feel that we are acting in anything other than a considered way. And yet that’s exactly what we are doing.
Often people find it easier to change when something else about the environment changes: take people out of their nests, out of the comfort zone, and it’s easier to change all sorts of things. Conversely, get people really excited about learning and change, then drop them back into the ‘real world’, and the pressures and inertia that surround them will kill the momentum faster than you can say ‘everyday stress’. So habits are intricately linked to environment: it’s not just what we do, it’s where we do it.
This makes our job somewhat easier: for example, as we tackle resistance, we are creating reflective spaces, sense making spaces outside of the ordinary. Spaces that inherently have a different set of permissions, so spaces that sit outside habit. Spaces where we do not yet have habitual responses.
So we can take a combination of actions: help people to identify resistant behaviours, conditioned responses, by helping them spot the triggers, and by giving them a new space, a reflective space, to observe those triggers from outside.
Which leads us to Rehearsal and Performance: does your organisation have both spaces?
Many organisations have learning space, and performance, but entirely lack rehearsal space. This is safe and permissive space to explore, to reflect, to truly learn. Rehearsal spaces are where we can prototype new responses once we have identified them ourselves, or had them pointed out to us by others. if the rehears space is safe, with the curtain drawn in front of the stage, then we can prototype and try out new responses to familiar triggers: make the trigger explicit, then explore ‘what if’ conversations. What would happen if you tried this approach? What if you varied that factor?
Clearly this depends on a desire to change in the first place, so much of what we are talking about here is going to be aimed at enabling early adopters, our embryonic change agents. And it’s their stories that we can use to trigger different responses in those who do not want to change.
Because habit can work for us as well as against us: if we understand how resistant behaviours are manifest, if we understand what makes them tick, we may be able to turn their power against the very resistance that they support.
We can develop change habits: agile responses that are triggered by situations we encounter in the Social Age. For example: an agile response is to offer a solution, not just to paint the problem out in glorious colour for all to see. By rewarding constructive responses, we can develop them, even if we are unable to change the lethargic triggered behaviours that leave the organisation inert. Remember, overall we are aiming for a magnetic sense of change, co-created and co-owned, so anything that rewards individual initiative is good.
When designing larger organisational change programmes, we can factor this in in several ways: we can ensure that we specifically call out negative triggered responses. Making them explicit, even if that spotlight is unwanted, still moves them from unconsciously triggered to consciously triggered. Nobody likes to have their faults pointed out to them, but once they are pointed out, we tend to correct them. Even if we are annoyed about it.
So shine a spotlight on responses, but try to talk about triggers and direct people to the rehearsal spaces: so we are not just being negative, but giving opportunity to try new things in the clearly signposted safe space.
Which brings us to Elasticity: is the resistant organisation universally firm in it’s resolve, or does it have soft spots. Does it react differentially? If you squeeze, does it sometimes push back?
Normally there is flex, and it’s into these cracks that we insert the leavers of narrative and co-creation, social reward and co-owned momentum.
The most usual place to discover the more springy parts of an organisation are around new projects or new people: because they are not yet fully part of the problem. New projects are by their nature new spaces, where people can jostle for permission in uncertain power dynamics and uncertain spaces. Similarly, people who are new in role or into the organisation have not yet cemented their reputation or space. If they are strong Social Leaders, they have an ability to assemble change communities around them, or to build a reputation for momentum.
If we are trying to move the organisation from Resistant to Constrained, we need to find and exploit these opportunities.
And reward those who engage. As we plan for change, we need to map the reward environment: what do people want, and what do they actually get. By tying our change efforts into more meaningful mechanisms of reward we can easily generate amplification and momentum. Conversely, but using the wrong reward mechanisms, we can reinforce the lethargy.
People work for money. Although sometimes they volunteer. And sometimes they take low paid jobs they love. Or highly paid jobs that they hate. And they talk about ‘dream jobs’, where the dream is experience, not money. Maybe a dream job is a job that gives them time. Or status. Or lets them make a difference in the world. Or help others. Reward, in fact, is complex. Sure, people work for money, but more than that, sometimes they want recognition, or reputation, or a sense of community, or the sense that they have made a difference, to others.
Social Reward is a strong force for enabling organisational change, a strong force to help us erode inertia. Particularly as it’s not hierarchically awarded, but rather community based.
Social Authority is that which is grounded within our communities: contextual and consensual, awarded based on our actions over time, not our position within an organisational structure or our formal position of power. It’s authority that people give us willingly, to use carefully.
So social authority can be awarded within embryonic change communities with no sanction or formalisation by the organisation as a whole, which may be resistant. Similarly, social authority may not be recognised by everyone, but it may be recognised by the people who count: your fellow change agents and upstarts.
So change projects that are trying to change an organisation from within, by overcoming resistance and setting up the foundations for change can utilise notions of social reward and recognition without having to sell the idea to the Exec. We can just do it.
Finding our narrative space is important: maybe a co-created weekly magazine space around change, or a community space that sits outside the formal organisation, spaces where we can recognise, thank and reward those people who are engaged. Building our community cohesion and identity, both of which are important, because if we want our change community to be successful, it needs not just shared purpose (to drive change) but also shared values (how we drive change).
So: there are four ‘resistors’ that relate to behaviour. Habit, Elasticity, Performance and Reward. We need to identify individuals and organisational triggers and the habits that they bring about that resist change, then modify them, bring them back into the conscious space, and rehearse new behaviours, develop new habits. To do that, we need performance and rehearsal spaces, clearly defined. If the organisation only has performance spaces, we need to carve out new rehearsal ones. We need to discover how elastic the organisation is and use our project to be a soft space, a space that gives to change and works with other more flexible parts of the organisation. And finally, we need to understand the reward map and utilise it’s power to embed the change community and develop it’s shared purpose and values.