Dealing with resistance depends on how you deal with difference
People who resist change are negative, troublemakers, or just don’t understand the benefits. Right? Not necessarily.
Perhaps they have legitimate concerns about the change as it is framed and planned. If so, these concerns, even legitimate ones, when expressed would sound to senior managers like resistance, wouldn’t they? Cooney and Sewell see dealing with this resistance as a question of who we deal with difference.
Cooney and Sewell’s stimulating research article is called Shaping the Other: Maintaining Expert Managerial Status in a Complex Change Management Programme, and is published in December 2008 in the academic journal Group and Organization Management.
Cooney and Sewell identify three means of dealing with difference:
- Confrontation – overt domination through the exercise of power – in other words, crush all opposition.
- Appropriation - a more subtle form of confrontation in which you take ownership of their position. For example, managers might appropriate the technical knowledge of the workers by eliciting it and representing it in a standardised and formalised manner, and then use it in service of their own ends.
- Dialogue – engagement with the other in a process that recognises each other’s difference and does not seek to dominate or appropriate them.
Note: the above are based on the work of the German philosopher Hegel, as discussed in the work of Collins.
While at first blush the dialogue option seems to be the most desirable, I think it is unlikely to be attained. Why not? Because of the power relations that are part and parcel of all human relating.
However, these alternatives gave me an insight into the work of the leader in making change happen, and my own role as a consultant in facilitating change.
I think that it is quite possible and indeed likely, that the issues of staff and managers are based on genuine concern for the organisation. I don’t assume that people are damaged.
In sessions I run with managers and staff, I am seeking to recognise difference, and not to dominate the discussion, in line with the dialogue option above. I do all sorts of things to minimise the power differential between me and the participants in order to meet this objective. And I am seeking to create dialogue. However, everyone knows that there is a power relationship going on, no matter how unacknowledged it might be. People are often surprised that I am actually listening to them, and that their views are reflected in the written documents that are produced in the course of the change project.
But nevertheless, the organisations I work with are not democracies (whether they be private sector, government agencies, NGOs or Crown entities), and the power differentials are real. By the way, do not read this as meaning that I think the power is all on the side of management. In one restructuring project I worked on successfully, a previous attempt to do similar things resulted in pickets and the resignation of the CEO. Naturally enough, the new CEO, General Manager and I took this very seriously as it graphically illustrated that the power was not unilaterally on the side of the CEO.
How are the power differentials in your organisation getting in the way of you dealing with difference (and resistance)?