This is part B of excerpts from a paper written by Landmark Forum leader Randy McNamara and Laurie and Jeffrey Ford on resistance to organizational change. Part A laid out the case that resistance to change was dependent upon the “background conversation” through which people listen to a conversational change, which can differ widely from organization to organization. Part B explores three of the main ways in which people in organizations resist change:

For any particular conversation that proposes or initiates an organizational change, there may be several different background conversations (realities) that contextualize, color, and characterize it. We propose three generic types of socially constructed background conversations that engender distinct types of resistance to change. These background realities are complacency, resignation, and cynicism.

What is important about these backgrounds is that they are constructed in and through conversations about success and failure that are supported with and through other background conversations regarding those successes and failures (e.g., the exploitation of workers for the benefit of management). Accordingly, each reality includes attributions of causes for and effects of those successes and failures, as well as what is possible in the future.

The Complacent Background

A Complacent Background is constructed on the basis of historical success: the organization that has been successful, whether by innovation or by persistence, has established a background conversation that is a variant of “We will succeed in the future the way we have in the past”.

A proposal for a substantive change in goals or operations introduced in a Complacent Background engender conversations that reinforce Complacent Resistance, e.g., that new goals are unnecessary in the face of presumed continuation of prior successes. Thus the Complacency Background gives a “success breeds failure” syndrome where people continue to practice once-successful strategies and actions assuming that that is all that is necessary to continue producing success.

As a result, any attempt to inspire or produce a change will be regarded as unnecessary at best and threatening future successes at worst, making Complacent Resistance conversations among the most difficult to displace or shift.

The Resigned Background

Resigned Backgrounds are constructed from historical failure, rather than from success. In the organization where things have gone wrong, the conversations that constitute a Resigned Background have accumulated to establish a theme of “This probably won’t work either”. Things are not the way people want them to be, or believe they could or should be, but conversations in this reality reflect that people have no hope of being able to change them.

Normally when people encounter failure, they blame the failure on factors outside of themselves. In a Resignation Background, however, conversations for self-blame dominate, and individuals blame themselves or their organization for the inability to succeed, i.e., we are deficient in some fatal way.

Introducing a proposal for change into a Resigned Background will engender Resigned Resistance conversations, characterized by half-hearted actions having no life or power in them, and reflecting a lack of motivation and an apparent unwillingness to participate.

Resigned Resistance conversations, in addition to expressing discouragement or even hopelessness, contain the suggestion that another individual or organization could likely succeed, even in these very same circumstances. The problem, therefore, is not with some external reality; the problem is with the fixed reality of ourselves. Resigned Resistance conversations justify and reinforce not attempting change or improvement, since there is no effective action possible for us, and we can only wait for someone else to step forward to handle the problem.

The Cynical Background

The Cynical Background is constructed, like the Resigned Background, from historical failure either directly or vicariously experienced through stories and narratives of other’s experiences.

Where both the Complacent Background (“I’m already doing the right things”) and the Resigned Background (“I can’t make any difference”), involve self-directed explanations for resisting a change initiative, the Cynical Background includes attacks on others, portraying those responsible for the change as incompetent, lazy, or both. People in a cynical reality “know” that no one and nothing can make a difference, and may even claim that proponents of the change are dishonest, selfish, and untrustworthy, with questionable and inauthentic motives.

A proposal for change, introduced in a Cynical Background, will be received by people who are confident that not only will the initiative fail, but that no attempt by anyone can ever succeed owing to real and immutable external circumstances or operating principles. The conversations that constitute Cynical Resistance include more overtly hostile and aggressive attacks on the proposed change than those of Resigned Resistance because they include attacks on the credibility and integrity of the people who are proposing or affiliated with the change initiative. Cynical Resistance conversations reflect a distrust and disbelief in others.

This series will continue in part C with conclusions and discussion about resistance and organizational change.

Author's Bio: 

The author is a writer and world traveler who enjoys writing about people and communities coming together.