Should we resist resistance?

At the beginning of last week at the European Organization Design Forum meeting in London I was presenting on the future of work. At the end of the week I was a panelist on FedTalk (Federal News Radio) discussing the challenges US government agencies are facing in developing a workforce of mobile workers . And at some point during the week someone asked me how I handled resistance to change in organization design work. Now I'm sitting on the flight back to DC and I'm wondering about resistance. I have several questions in my mind on this:

1. Does the thought of future work patterns, including mobile working, inevitably provoke resistance from stakeholders?
2. If the answer is 'yes' are there any groups of stakeholders who are particularly resistant to thinking about new ways of working and, if so, for what reasons?
3. Is there then an automatic assumption among organization design and development people that where resistance is evident then it somehow either unjustifiable or wrong and must be 'managed' (i.e. overcome)?
4. If the answer to this is 'yes' are there ways of thinking about resistance not as a barrier but as a positive, healthy, and normal response to work practice changes?
5. If so how can resistance lead to conversation and dialogue that yields useful information and new insights to a design project?

I'll briefly tackle each one of the five questions and see what I come up with. (I've always rather liked the quote from somewhere 'When I hear what I say, I'll know what I think'.)

It's easy to say that people are resistant to changes in work patterns. Take the increasing use of robots to do work that was done by humans. The extract from the article below (in my stash of articles on the work of the future is rather typical)

Beyond the technical challenges lies resistance from unionized workers and communities worried about jobs. The ascension of robots may mean fewer jobs are created in this country, even though rising labor and transportation costs in Asia and fears of intellectual property theft are now bringing some work back to the West.

Then someone sent me this piece from the London Evening Standard about the move to hot-desking at the BBC.

Signs seem to be proliferating at the BBC's revamped Broadcasting House. Last week the Londoner reported that a notice had been put above a kitchen sink in the current affairs department asking staff to refrain from washing their feet there. Another sign has appeared in the ladies lavatories. It reads "Senior Management Hotdesks".
It had obviously been dumped there by someone who is less than impressed by staff directives at the BBC's new corporate cathedral.

And several of the questions from the FedTalk moderator related to the challenges of introducing mobile working and, in particular, manager resistance to managing remote or virtual workers.

But there are balancing observations if you keep alert for them. I enjoyed the piece about why everyone should work from a coffee shop even when they have an office as one illustration of an alternate view.
And I rather wonder whether the increasing number of robots will mean an increasing number of people needed to make and service robots. (So far as I know robots are not, as yet, self-propagating).

Also during the week I heard a rather nice story about someone, call him John, in his late-forties whose wife had cancer. John was laid off as part of a redesign but seeing the care that his wife had during her cancer treatment he decided to re-train as a cancer nurse and is well on the way to qualifying.

Whether certain groups of people are consistently resistant to workplace changes I rather doubt. It seems that resistance is situational and contingent on circumstance. The quote about the union resistance above might indicate that groups of lobbyists can put a case for (or against) something and this might be better addressed as a legitimate point of view than a possible conflict situation. But the group may contain individual albeit unheard dissenters from the mainstream.

My experience suggests that some individuals have a harder time than others if the ground shifts under their feet but this is more personality and attitude dependent than anything else. Related to this someone referred me to a book she'd found tremendously helpful in the workplace. It's called Yes Your Teen is Crazy and gives hints and tips on reframing conversations that might result in resistance.

I think that those who appear resistant most fear loss of something they value: office space, status, their job, reputation, community, their easy commute, etc. So resistance may be cloaking fear which could require quite a different conversation (around empathy, support, and suspension of judgment, for example).

Whether organization design and development people automatically assume 'resistance' is wrong I'm not sure. There seems to be a certain OD community norm that people 'resist change' and somehow the role of organization development is to 'get buy-in'. I've written before about OD being potentially manipulative and coercive. In that blog I noted that: 'There are schools of thought that hold that organizational development is manipulative and that organization development consultants 'engage in self-deception'. There is an excellent article by Marie McKendall on this topic The Tyranny of Change: Organization Development Revisited'.

A good while ago I read a book called 'Change your questions change your life' by Marilee Adams which had some powerful arguments in favor of 'learner language' rather than 'judger' language. And I am of the view that the language and framing used makes a big difference to resistance management.

So on that basis it seems that seeing resistance as normal suggests that rather than trying to 'overcome' it, work with it and aim to understand it. There might be insights and understanding gained that actually aids the organization design or change process. Bob Tschannen-Moran wrote a useful piece on asking open questions that shows how appreciative inquiry techniques can help with this. And listening to the maverick or outlier, the devil's advocate or authentic dissenter can work well as some academics suggest. (If you are a statistician you'll know the debates around the value of outliers).

Five though provokers then have emerged through musing on resistance:

1. Resistance is situational and contingent on circumstance
2. Resistance may well be a front to fear and so addressing the fear may be better than trying to overcome resistance
3. Organization development seems to have a norm around 'people are resistant to change' and the requirement is to 'get buy-in' which smacks of manipulation and coercion.
4. Changing the language and framing around resistance from judging to learning is worth considering
5. People with dissenting views or resistance to 'buying in' are worth listening to. They may have a useful story to tell.

What are your views on resistance?

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