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Does the Change Plan Enable Effective Response to Emerging Issues?

Stephen Billing, February 28, 2009

In which change gets a life of its own and the plan gets in the way

I was once engaged to facilitate some change workshops to help an organisation implement new ways of working – what they were calling a new culture – it involved moving to a new building. These workshops were stage one of the change, and were to concentrate on the strategic picture, the vision of the organisation, and inspire them to see need for change, This was preparatory to more detailed workshops that would follow in stage two where the nuts and bolts would be worked through.

The workshops were highly designed affairs, designed in fact by a PR firm and included magnetic boards, glossy handouts with inspirational stories of pioneers, video with a well known comedian, fancy posters and other similar artifacts.

So, guess what the managers wanted to talk about in this workshop full of vision, inspiration, pioneering, and clever artifacts? Laptops – i.e. would they have laptops? Car parks, i.e. would they have car parks. And even, would there be space in the fridge to put their lunches? I kid you not – I couldn’t have made that up.

At the time, I was pleased to hear this stuff because I could hear issues relating to status and identify, which I wanted to explore.

However, the change project team could only hear "irrelevant detail," and was disappointed in the managers who were not supposed to be interested in these things until stage two, when logistics of this nature would be covered in the next series of workshops they had planned. The change project team, who knew the answers to these questions, did not want to talk about these things, which they dismissed as “detail.” I’m sure you can imagine the conversation “Those managers just do not understand the big picture – they’re only concerned about themselves.”

Sound familiar?

The managers were disappointed, feeling they could not get answers to their questions and that the project team were hiding things from them.

The project team was frustrated with me for not keeping it “strategic” enough.

And I was frustrated with the project team for having so much emphasis on the flash artifacts and not recognizing that when one of the General Managers said “Up until now I had not considered the impact of this on my people,” that this was a break through, not something negative, it was not resistance.

We have a problem in our thinking about change projects, which is that so often they are supposed to go according to the grand plan. And this means that after all the elaborate project planning and gantt charts, when things don’t go according to plan, such as when managers are interested now in where they will sit, instead of "strategic" things, project teams don’t have an adequate response.

If, instead, you are paying attention to what is going on NOW and responding to it in a genuine way in a spirit of ‘joint enquiry,’ then you will notice when people are interested in these other things and be able to flex with their needs, answer them and then carry on together.

Look, Ma, no resistance!


Dealing With a Resistant Individual

Stephen Billing, February 3, 2009

This article comes from the Changing Organisations Newsletter ISSN 1174-5576 Num 1: February 2009. 

It provides practical advice for dealing with a key individual who is resistant to change. They may be holding out alone, or perhaps they are negatively influencing others.

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The great insight from social constructionism is that we are not independent isolates, our reality is constructed with others as a social phenomenon.

It can be very helpful to keep this in mind when you are dealing with people who are (or seem to be) resistant to change. In order to dissolve the resistance, it is necessary not for the other person to change, but for the relationship between you and the resistant person (or people) to change. In our socially constructed world, if you change your relationship with that person, their resistant attitude will also change. As you’ll appreciate, this is quite different from the standard change rhetoric which advocates persuasive communication to change the other person’s point of view.

Here’s what to do. Invite the person to talk with you on neutral ground. Over a coffee away from the workplace is a good start. The purpose is to enter into what I call a ‘joint enquiry’ with the other person.

‘Joint enquiry’ means that you have a perspective on the situation, and you recognise that so does the other person. By hearing the other person’s perspective and by expressing your own, and being open to changing your own views, you will reach a new understanding of the situation, and with this shift in understanding comes a shift in the resistance.

Here is a four-point action plan for a ‘joint enquiry’ into the situation that will change the resistance of the other person.

  • Ask what their point of view is. Then summarise it back to them. If you have already heard their point of view previously, summarise your understanding of their point of view.

    Lawyers and debaters often do this when they are rehearsing their arguments. The powerful key here for dissolving resistance to change is to express it in non-judgmental and non-personal terms. Don’t say “You did not support the improvement to the quality system because you are not a team player,” Instead say either “You did not support the improvement to the quality system because you were concerned about the impact on overtime,” or “You did not support the improvement to the quality system and I do not understand why not. Can you please tell me?” Then summarise back to them what they have said to you.

  • Ask the other person if you have understood the situation accurately from their point of view. Allow them to make any corrections they think are needed.
  • Given what you have heard, explain your (amended) point of view, again using non-judgmental language. Keep your explanations free of value judgments as much as possible. Point out aspects of how your viewpoint has similarities as well as differences.
  • Agree next steps – some specific actions that you will each take, or something you are each committed to change in relation to each other. For example, “I will tell you if you do something that I don’t agree with.”

You may not need to go to step three, as steps one and two are so powerful.


New Responses to Resistance

Stephen Billing, January 25, 2009

Patricia Benner’s work challenges leaders of change to consider and generate new responses to employees’ reactions to change. This is more effective than the commonly utilised grief cycle approach.

This is the fifth in a series of posts about how to view your employees’ responses to change as other than ‘resistance.’ It is based on Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring which in turn is based on Heidegger’s phenomenological approach. Phenomenology means that people can grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for the self. 

People grasp change situations in terms of what those situations mean for them.

Previous posts have covered Benner’s four aspects of our humanness through which we deal with change situations and the associated growth and loss:

Benner’s contribution assists in redefining what is commonly known in managerial terms as resistance, or opposition to the change desired by management, an opposition that it is the leader’s job to overcome.

To me, Benner’s work challenges leaders of change to consider and generate new responses to the specific situation where the smooth operation of the participant’s background meaning, habitual bodily understanding and the individual’s concerns are breaking down.

This view is consistent with complex responsive process thinking which encourages paying attention to the micro-interaction of what is going on in the here and now.

John Shotter points out the importance of being open, of being willing to be struck by the novel moments in ordinary conversation. I think Benner’s suggestions help leaders to concentrate more on understanding the life situation of participants and to identify what is potentially new in a conversation.

This is a far cry from seeing employees as going through the stages of a grief cycle, and allows a far more personalised approach to situations of ‘resistance’ that might arise.



Changed Situation – Opportunity for Reflection, not Persuasion

Stephen Billing, January 23, 2009

 People constitute their world and are constituted by it at the same time. Changed situations lead to breakdown of smooth functioning for your employees. Better to see this as an opportunity for reflection rather than an opportunity to ‘persuade’ them.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced.

Benner proposes that there are four aspects of our humanness that enable us to grasp situations directly in terms of their meaning for the self:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

Earlier posts discussed embodied intelligence, background meaning and concern.

Benner calls the fourth attribute ’situation’, which denotes that people inhabit their world, rather than living in an environment. What I mean is that people are constituted by, at the same time as they form, their world. Not only do we create our own world, but it simultaneously creates us. Benner says that this point is often missed because we are so ingrained in an individualist view of the world where we are seen as autonomous individuals, who create the world we live in through our words and actions. Interdependence with other people takes a back seat – more on this here.

Over time, external situations change, and in response the individual also changes. For example, marriage, divorce, widowhood, unemployment, promotion and retirement are all examples Benner gives of how real world situations or contexts change and can impact upon life experience.

No amount of rehearsal or reflection can prepare one for these events because people cannot, in advance, reflectively encounter every taken-for-granted aspect of their being.

However, these changed contexts represent breakdowns in smooth functioning, which can prompt reflection. We can become aware of previously unnoticed background meanings, habitual body understanding and concerns.

This breakdown in smooth functioning is experienced as stressful, as any person involved in organisational change can testify. In situations of change, people’s concerns change and the habitual bodily understandings may not seem to work any more. Taken-for-granted aspects of one’s being may no longer work smoothly. And yet often, leaders respond with ‘persuasive’ messages, rather than attempts to understand what it means for employees whose habitual smooth functioning is breaking down.

Considering this, along with history in the form of background meaning can offer you as the leader of change, the potential for new responses to your employees’ ‘resistance.’ Something more relevant to your employees than a persuasive message.

These new responses you make to your employees have far more potential to trigger the actual organisational change you desire, more than all the programmed key messages and persuasive messages your PR team could dream up.


Why People May React Strongly to Change

Stephen Billing, January 21, 2009

People understand the world in terms of their concerns. What threatens the concern threatens the person. Which is why people can react strongly to proposed change.

This is the third in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced.

Benner proposes that humans grasp situations directly in terms of their meaning for the self. This ability to grasp the meaning of situations is made possible by four aspects of our humanness:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

Earlier posts discussed embodied intelligence and background meaning, which help life go smoothly without effortful conscious attending.

Embodied intelligence and background meaning explain how a person can be in the world.

Benner’s third attribute of concern explains why. We are involved in the world through a context, and things and people matter to us. Because they matter, we become very involved in the world. This concern accounts for why people do things, but is not about people being motivated by either internal needs fulfilment (e.g. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) or external prodding (carrot and stick) which are two common ways of seeing motivation.

Rather, through concern, each person is involved with the other and certain things matter more than others. In other words, some things have more meaning than others, and that meaning is given by one’s concerns.

Although concerns can change over time, rather than the person owning the concerns in a possession kind of way, the concerns are part of the person. In a sense they also define the person.

The person understands the world in the light of their concerns. This means that what threatens the concern threatens the person.

Benner prefers the term concerns rather than commitment because of the tendency to see commitment as a measurable scale from high to low. She prefers to use the term concern as a way of getting to the meaning of the concern in the person’s own terms. Instead of describing ‘commitment to the change’ or similar, which predetermines what the concern or commitment is, she suggests that we explore what the person is concerned about, in their own terms.

This is a helpful insight when it comes to thinking about resistance to change, and why people can sometimes react strongly to proposed change. Their concerns are part of their identity, and change that challenges people’s concerns is threatening to their identity.

This suggests that understanding the concerns of your people is important in change situations.

When expressed this way, it sounds like no more than a platitude. But this idea is different from listening to resistant employees with a view to working out how to change their minds, and the difference becomes clearer after considering the fourth of Benner’s attributes, which is the situation itself.

This is discussed in the next post.


For Leaders of Change: Benner’s Background Meaning

Stephen Billing, January 19, 2009

People respond to change in ways that reflect their background meaning, not through generic grief cycles

This is the second in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced. Much of the literature on change management considers these in terms of a grief cycle, but I think Benner has a much more nuanced and useful way of considering the response of your employees to change.

Benner proposes that humans grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for themselves, as opposed to going through a standard grief cycle. And that the ability to grasp the meaning of situations is made possible by four aspects of our humanness:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

An earlier post discussed embodied intelligence.

The second of Benner’s attributes of humanness is that we develop background meaning, a determination of what is real for us individually.

Background meaning is formed through the person’s experience of the world, through early encounters with family and then through wider connections with the outside world.

These experiences form our understanding of what is real, what is right, what is true in the world. Being a shared, public understanding of what is, it determines what counts as ‘right’ for that person.

Background meaning is not a thing in itself, but is a way of understanding the world. It is like a light – you don’t see the light itself, but you see what it illuminates. In a similar way, the background meaning itself is invisible but it illuminates your world and determines what you see and what you don’t see.

Because we are embodied intelligences, we take in cultural background meanings from birth. For example Caudill and Weinstein1 found that Japanese babies and American babies became thoroughly Japanese or American by the ages of three or four months. The Japanese babies were physically passive and watchful of things and people around them. The American babies were physically active and constantly engaging vocally and physically with their mothers. The researchers attributed this to the culturally distinct interactive patterns of mother and child. The Japanese understand the newborn to be a separate, uncivilised being who needs to be brought into the family and made civilised. The Americans understand the baby to be a helpless dependent being who needs to be encouraged to be autonomous.

So, for an individual, background meaning is provided by the family, culture and sub-cultures to which that person belongs. It is taken up in individual ways in particular circumstances but always within the constraints of what is culturally acceptable.

The implication of this for you as a leader of change is that when you recognise that people will respond to change initiatives in accordance with their background meaning, you will be able to make sense of employees’ responses without being polarised into seeing these responses purely as ‘resistance.’

If you see employees as demonstrating ‘resistance’ then your only alternative is to try to deal with something opposing you – which leads only to attempts to either persuade (sell) or bypass those

If you consider the background meaning of your employees, it will allow you a wider range of ways of engaging with those employees rather than only as ‘resistant.’

Benner’s approach offers the option of exploring what the background meaning is that is leading the employees to have the response that looks like resistance.

The concept of background meaning may prompt you as a leader also to consider your own background meaning, and also what you know about the employees’ background meaning and how this might be influencing the ‘resistant’ response. Understanding the employees’ background meaning can help leaders to respond in ways that open up the possibility of change. The  alternative is to engage with employees as though they are resistant, and this leads to stand offs with little possibility of resolution.

1 Caudill W. and Weinstein H. 1969 Maternal Care and infant behaviour in Japan and America, Psychiatry, 32:12.

Benner’s approach is based on the phenomenologist philiosophy of Martin Heidegger.


How People Respond to Change (Not by Grief Cycle)

Stephen Billing, January 15, 2009


One of the most common ways that people are finding this site and blog is through my earlier posts on Patricia Benner’s work on 5 stages of skill acquisition and their implications for leadership (here).

Other work of Benner’s is relevant to leaders initiating change in their organisations. In The Primacy of Caring, she explores the practice of professionals dealing with health and illness, growth and loss, as they are lived or experienced.

Her findings have relevance for leaders of change because people going through change situations are also dealing with growth and loss.

While it is common to think of grief in terms of a grief cycle (e.g. Kubler-Ross), Benner’s explanation of humans as self-interpreting beings suggests that the responses of participants come from their understanding of the situation, and that they respond as the situation demands and as it unfolds in time. It is not purely about a process such as a grief cycle.

This understanding of situation is important. Benner argues that humans have the capacity to grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for the self (not necessarily going through a grief cycle), and this ability is made possible by four aspects of our humanness:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

Firstly, people have embodied intelligence. This means that we grasp a situation quickly in a non-reflective way, as in our ability to recognise faces and also perform familiar tasks such as driving on ‘auto-pilot’ without conscious attending. Our embodied intelligence is what enables a racing car driver to assess a situation and take action much more quickly than conscious reflection would allow.

Embodied intelligence can also be seen as skilled spontaneity. This is the faculty that is responsible for the experience of driving to work in the morning and not remembering familiar aspects of the journey, such as changing gear, or stopping for a particular traffic light.

Leaders and facilitators of change can develop skilful ‘spontaneous’ ways of dealing with certain types of group situations, and not be able to explain them, because the explaining is like asking a concert pianist to explain how their fingers move across the keys – one of the key attributes of embodied intelligence is that it breaks down under conscious reflection.

A concert pianist having to explain how they play the piano would likely be halting and hesitant in explaining it, and would certainly perform the piece relatively poorly if they had to think about each finger on each key rather than ‘going with the flow’.

This embodied intelligence works best when it is not noticed. For example, in tennis, I have experienced someone commenting to me that my serve is going well, only to find that this made me think about my serve with the consequence that it broke down completely.

Embodied intelligence can also be thought of as ‘unconscious competence.’

Itis difficult to articulate, and Benner suggests that this difficulty in articulation is one reason why embodied intelligence has been undervalued in western society, compared to rational thinking.

It could be helpful for leaders to consider that both the leader’s gesture and the employee’s ‘resistant’ response will have an element of embodied intelligence, some element of skilled spontaneity that is habitual and learnt, and is outside of the individual’s awareness. 

The next posts will discuss Benner’s ideas about background meaning, concern and situation.


The Force of Resistance to Change

Stephen Billing, January 5, 2009

It’s time to stop thinking of resistance as a force opposing the change you want to see

Lewin’s force field analysis is behind much of the work on organisational change, sometimes in a taken-for-granted way. Lewin, a major thinker in organisational development and organisational change in the 50s, borrowed from physics in thinking of resistance as a restraining force in the direction of the status quo.

This view has led managers to see their intentions as one force, opposed by the intentions of others in the organisation, especially those who are less powerful.

While this view originally represented a significant movement in thinking about change, it has reinforced a focus on the ‘forces’ that lead managers and employees away from supporting the change desired by the senior managers.

Watson points out that senior managers often perceive resistance as negative since they see employees who resist as disobedient.

Managers end up treating their subordinates as obstacles to change because of this way of thinking about change as taking place in this field of opposing forces, as Piderit says.

The label of resistance is then used to dismiss valid employee concerns about proposed changes. Instead of seeing negative responses to change proposals simply as negative, it pays to look behind what you interpret as the resistance, to see what the valid concerns are behind the negative response.

I have found that it helps to assume that the concerns of those in the organisation are valid, and to work to incorporate them into the change proposal.

What do you think?


Dealing with Resistance to Change

Stephen Billing, December 23, 2008

The positive intentions behind negative responses to change proposals

Clients are often quick to point out those in their teams who are likely to resist a proposed change, or who they think are not likely to get with the programme. The CEOs and managers who are embarking on significant organisational change seem to have some ‘problem children’ they can readily identify and point to as being tricky people to bring on board.

These perceptions have arisen through a history of the CEO’s interaction with that person, from which certain patterns have developed, that can be intractable, seemingly impossible to change.

It becomes very easy to overlook any positive intentions of the other person. What if, in relation to the particular structure review or new technology that you are implementing, that ‘problem child’ actually has positive intentions in their negative response to the change proposal? Their actions would not look much different from those of someone who was just trying to pull the change down.

To dissolve resistance to significant change, the key is to enter into what I call ‘joint enquiry’ with the affected people. The heart of this joint enquiry is to understand the positive intentions behind the response of the other person.

Because there might just be something in there that will prevent a disaster or vastly improve your results. You won’t know about it if you don’t approach that person with a view to finding out.


Dealing With Difference

Stephen Billing, December 21, 2008

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)?