October 2014 | 

Two Assumptions That Block Change

Assumptions that Block Change

It’s such a common belief, across cultures, that most people don’t even question it: people don’t like change. It’s what Carlos Ghosn heard when he took over Japan’s struggling Nissan Motor Corp. in 1999. “You can’t close plants, you can’t break relationships with suppliers, you can’t change the Japanese seniority system. People won’t stand for it.” Greg Shea, author of Leading Successful Change, says leaders who believe this to be true put their change initiatives, and in some cases their entire organization, at risk.

Shea, who teaches in Wharton’s Leading Organizational Change, notes that the assumption puts leaders on the defense before any steps toward change even take place. “You’re going to build a bunker, because you believe you’re going to meet a lot of resistance.” Shea says the truth is, as Carlos Ghosn knew when he initiated ground-breaking change at Nissan, people not only tolerate change, but can even get excited about it.

“If people really didn’t like change, everyone would still be living at home with their parents. They wouldn’t change jobs, or even hairstyles. It is simply not true that people are anti-change,” Shea explains. In fact, he says, during the past decade, a body of scientific data has grown that shows humans have been remarkably adaptive over time, in very fundamental ways. “Our capacity to adapt may in fact be one of the key skills that separates us from other creatures. We are very change-capable, and can embrace change when we decide it is important.”

He notes that leaders who make this resistance assumption in effect put some of their responsibility for change on others. “Blaming people means you are not open to other explanations about why your efforts are not successful. People might not understand the need for the change, or they might not have the resources [skills, knowledge] they need to succeed. Resistance can come from different sources, and a change leader needs to be skillfully diagnostic. If you write it off simply as a general dislike of change, you may be missing something important.”

In addition to just being wrong, blaming others can lead to another harmful outcome. Shea calls blaming a “natural, counter-productive, and destructive tendency. Leadership is about relationships. When you blame others, it can cause insecurity and weaken followership in general. It can put you on a path to becoming less effective, not just for the change at hand, but in the future as well.”

The other misconception leaders should avoid is that change requires a consensus. “When was the last time you were involved in a complex social group where change happened with consensus?” he asks. “This idea comes up in every session of Leading Organizational Change. People hold this belief across countries, cultures, and industries.” Most change, he says, is based not on consensus but on critical mass, and leaders who seek consensus waste valuable time trying to achieve an unnecessary and often impossible goal.

Building critical mass, on the other hand, can take time, but it’s a manageable process. One method is to adapt your work environment to support the change (read Shea’s how-to Nano Tool on the subject). Another is to begin by building a coalition. In his book Leading Successful Change, Shea describes how creating a list of individuals or groups who believe that the change will affect them can be an effective first step.

Divide the stakeholders into three groups according to their power:

  1. C for those who can control the outcome (make the change happen or not happen; limit these to a short list of six)
  2. I for those who can influence the outcome (make the change initiative harder or easier)
  3. A for those who can appreciate that the change is occurring but have little if any power to control its course

“Study each stakeholder and determine a plan for how best to approach them,” Shea explains. “Then, every time you sit down to review the state of the project, check the stakeholder list and the state of the plan for each stakeholder. Should those on the list still be there? What is happening with each of them? What has been learned about each of them in terms of the project since the last review?”

By using this method, leaders become proactive in leading change. Shea says, “It’s a much more useful approach than simply blaming others or hoping to reach a consensus. Effective leaders can anticipate and diagnose the real reactions of their stakeholders, and they have a variety of skills they can use to address them.”