What if Employees are Resistant?

Maddie and I delivered the first of four webinars about the Humanize book, being offered through our Publisher, Que. This one included 10 tips for being more open as an organization.

At the end of the webinar, we had one brave soul ask us a question, and it was an interesting one. This person asked (and this is a paraphrase):

The leadership in our organization is okay with making the move to be more open and transparent, but the staff is somewhat resistant. Our organization has real security/safety issues since our work is about women and abuse, so the idea of being transparent is hard for people to embrace. How do we bring them along?

I love this question for several reasons.

First, it’s a great illustration of the subtlety and nuance that is always there when it comes to issues of creating human organizations and the change that is required to get there. There is no single answer. Even when we boil it down to four human elements (open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous), you have to recognize that ideas like open or transparency will mean different things in different contexts.

Some companies can be more transparent than others, depending on the context. If you work to protect women from abuse, you’re probably not going to be writing extensive blog posts about the details of your work! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paying attention to openness and transparency. Even in a context like this, there is power in openness and transparency and you don’t want that to go to waste. In this case, you’ll simply focus internally. Where can you increase openness and transparency within your organization, among staff? Look for ways to share things with employees that you hadn’t previously. In the context of social media, humanizing often involves breaking down boundaries between the organization and its external stakeholders, but that does not ALWAYS need to be the case.

The second reason I like this question is because it helps us take a second look at resistance. You know that my new mantra is that change is NOT hard. This is counter-intuitive, I know, because we see people resist change so often, as in the organization mentioned above. But here, as in many cases, they are not resisting change. They are afraid. Here they are afraid of putting either themselves or their client in danger (as in actual physical harm). In other contexts, it might be fear of disappointing the boss or harming their career. But it’s still about being afraid.

So how about you create some safe space where they will be less afraid? Figure out how to create a safe space for them to try out these new behaviors that you want (open, transparent), where they know they won’t be risking physical harm. It may be small scale at first, but the more they have the experience of trying out openness and transparency, the more easily they can expand on it moving forward. If you know what people are afraid of, then it’s easier to design a context where that fear can be removed from the equation.

Overcoming resistance is usually about removing the obstacles, rather than pushing people over them.

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  1. Christopher Burd
    30.05.2012 at 12:42 pm

    “in many cases, they are not resisting change. They are afraid.”

    I don’t think this is a helpful analysis in many cases. Worrying about what the boss thinks and worrying about the safety of your clients are totally different things. The first is self-serving, the second is an aspect of professional ethics. We may call both reactions “fear”, but that may be wrong on two counts. First, it may not actually be fear we perceive, but outrage or contempt, possibly justified. Second, this language, with its concerns for creating “safe places” etc., can easily lead change agents to infantalize their subjects. Such an attitude makes it difficult for change agents to engage in real dialogue, which in some cases (e.g., collisions between company policy and professional ethics) ought to lead them to back off from or modify their change agendas.

    Sorry to be so negative here, because in reality I probably wouldn’t do things much differently than you’re recommending. In my experience, though, it’s facile to ascribe resistance to employee psychology. Sure the psychology is there, but it arises from real interests and concerns. It’s up to the change agent to identify those , take them seriously, and engage in authentic dialogue about them. Authentic dialogue is dialogue that eschews manipulation and also involves the possibility of either side changing their position.Occasionally, the change agent may have to argue for changing the change agenda. Ha-ha, we’ll see who’s afraid of the boss then!

    Again, my apologies for getting so exercised about your blog post, which is on the whole quite reasonable. But I see dangers in the whole change-agent paradigm, and they are worth pointing out strongly.

    • 01.06.2012 at 10:36 am

      Hi Christopher,

      No apologies necessary!! I love push back on my posts–it’s usually helps pull out the clarity and the most important points. Thanks for engaging.

      I think we probably agree more than disagree here. I agree that concern about what the boss thinks and concern about client safety are very different things. But they will share certain dynamics that I think we should be paying attention to. In both cases, there may be steps we can take–information we could provide, or safeguards we could put in place, that would take that fear reaction off the table. That, I think, would better enable the “authentic dialogue” you are talking about, which I also agree is critical. That’s what I was implying when I talked about “safe space.” There is often a lot of issues that remain unspoken that prevent that kind of dialogue. I am advocating for getting that out on the table.

      Thanks again for commenting.