Is resistance to change sufficient explanation when droves of senior managers leave a business?

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IMG-20141229-00143You’ve heard the old story that if you have a hammer all you will see is nails. The same thing applies to resistance to change. If you have only one framework that explains resistance to you that’s how you will see reality. Nuances in any change process whether in a small business or a large one get short thrift. Either you go with the change or you resist and get a boot in the backside.

Typically what happens during “change management programs” is that senior and middle managers are hammered. The so-called “change agents”, which could be consultants with very little experience in actual change management, come in to advise top management. They are ever on the lookout for anyone or any group that resists change. I have yet to see any so-called “change management program” recognise work of senior and middle managers for the work they have put in over the years to get the organisation where it is at present. There is also little or no recognition for the foundational work done before by other managers who may have exited the company or retired. The foundational work that they have done can easily be eroded and destroyed by inexperienced, untalented individuals who think they can walk on water.

Change programmes can end up in huge losses of talent. In mergers or acquisitions, you often find that the original, talented team leaves. Assimilation is hard. For example, a small business of about 30 employees was bought by a larger company and within five years almost all those employees had left the large company and rejoined the original owner in a newly formed company.

We need to challenge existing mental models when it comes to resistance to change. If you have only one framework, you will be working with a plan to instrument.

Let’s look at a case researched by two universities. A large branded company experienced declining revenues and profit which lead to radical reorganisation. The tougher competitive retail environment meant that they had to go from a decentralised to centralised decision-making organisation. Of course, there were strong emotional or affective reactions to the changes by the senior management who were reduced to middle managers. There was also the lack of recognition of local team change efforts. Relationships deteriorated with the new head office and there was a sense of betrayal and loss. Interestingly, if the local change efforts had been done by lower-level employees, it’s likely, the researchers said, that this all would have been seen any good knowledge by the head office. But because it was done by senior managers their intentions were looked on suspiciously.

The result: the departure of a senior group of talented managers with only three of them remaining in the country that was studied. The researchers found that this was not a classic case of unwarranted resistance. They said that the lesson was that we need to recast the way we think about resistance. The researchers found that the responses to change included individual dynamics such as emotional experience but also group-level dynamics which involved what they called emotional content and, group cohesion and social comparison. This basically means that they were dynamics with in groups and between group members. There were also intergroup relationships which involved relationships between groups inside the country unit and those outside such as in the head office or home office. They found that this was not a classic case of unwarranted resistance but involved more complexity such as emotions, relationships between each other, relationships between the so-called “change agents” and the group members.

What this basically means is that if you are going to implement a change process, don’t be beguiled by guru consultants and top management who feel they are beyond question. Make sure that when you label something as “resistance” it is resistance. But look around and you may find other influences that are slowing down or stymieing change. Personal and interpersonal dynamics could be playing an important role. If you go in and slash and burn under the banner of change and resistance don’t be surprised if senior and middle managers see your crude attempts at change for what they are and take the skills, competence and talent elsewhere.

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