This is the third part of a series of articles, all of which are excerpted from a larger paper, “Resistance and the Background Conversations of Change”. The original paper was written in 2003 by Randy McNamara, who leads the Landmark Forum program for Landmark Education, and co-authors Laurie Ford (Critical Path Consultant) and Jeffrey Ford (Max M. Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University).

In parts A of this article, McNamara, Ford and Ford explored the notion that resistance to change at an organizational level was characterized by the “background conversation” through which members of an organizational culture viewed reality as much as the explicit foreground conversation about the change being initiated.

In Part B, three different,typical background conversations of individuals in organizations were identified: Complacent, Resigned or Cynical. The article then explored how individuals with these three background conversations would resist organizational change in three very different ways.
Part C explores the implications of these background conversations and discusses what organizations can do to implement change in the face of them.

If the backgrounds that engender resistance are generated and sustained through conversations, then the task of changing these backgrounds entails changing what is said. This means that people could come to recognize that they are constructing their reality in their everyday conversations, realize that they do not need to continue saying what they have said in the past, and start saying something different. It is in the saying of something new that one is given the opportunity to challenge, engage, explore, and create, thereby discovering underlying assumptions and opening new opportunities for action.
The three constructed backgrounds presented here portray resistance as a response to an assemblage of conversations about the nature, meanings, and causes of past successes or failures, rather than as a response to the actual conditions and circumstances of the change initiative itself. Each background provides a coherent and complete sense-making structure that integrates the past and the background construction seamlessly: the individual is engaged in conversations that are given by the past. This means that resistance to change is never only about what is happening now, but is also about what has happened before, and the meanings that have been assigned to possibilities for the future.

Traditional approaches treat resistance as a response to the current change situation only, i.e., to what is happening now, with this change. This view implies that if managers can handle the current change situation properly (i.e., the foreground conversations), then resistance will be minimized and ultimately overcome.

In fact, traditional attempts at reducing resistance themselves will be seen through the perceptual filters of the different backgrounds. For example, involvement, education, and participation are among the strategies recommended for dealing with resistance. But in a complacent reality, such strategies are likely to be seen as unnecessary; in a resigned reality as futile; in a cynical reality as malicious or manipulative. Similarly, attempts to increase the credibility of management will be received with resistance tempered by complacency, resignation, or cynicism. Traditional situation oriented attempts to overcome resistance that is a product of constructed background conversations will only serve to further reinforce that background and expand or strengthen the resistance. What is required are strategies that address the background conversations.

It is our assertion that complacency, resignation, and cynicism are realities to which people are blind. People do not see their world as a product of their conversations, but, conversely, they see their conversations as a factual report on an existing world. Changing the background involves making people aware that they are operating in a socially constructed context and that they are not limited to that context. Indeed, the power in dialogue is the ability to bring background constructions (assumptions, conclusions, decisions, etc.) into the foreground so that they can be examined.

We propose that one way to deal with complacent, resigned, and cynical backgrounds is through reinvention. Reinvention differs from change in that it is not about changing what is, but undoing what is and creating something new. Reinvention involves reframing, and inquiring into the context in which we are interpreting and interacting with the world, with the intent of uncovering that context. Once the context is revealed, and people can take responsibility for having propagated it, a new context can be designed.

Conversations for closure enable and facilitate reinvention. Bridges proposes that where prior changes have not been closed or completed, people are left dissatisfied. People are bound to the existing background until the conversations of the past have been brought to a close.

One of the implications of this perspective is that people can be supported in completing the incomplete past. Conversations for closure are constituted by a dialogue in which people examine the assumptions and expectations that underlie their actions and afford people the opportunity to reflect on their responsibility for what has happened. In this dialogue, people explicitly state what is incomplete about the past and explore ways to resolve the differences and misunderstandings arising in the conversation. These conversations also give people a new opportunity to be acknowledged for what they have done and not done, and to recognize the expectations that have and have not been fulfilled in the organization’s past, and to discover and express their commitments for the future.

Conversations for closure are essential for creating “a sense of harmonious completion” wherein tension with past events is reduced or removed and balance and equilibrium are restored. Closure allows the past to remain in the past, which makes possible a new recognition of what is actually present, and thus a new opportunity to create a background independent of yesterday’s points of view.

Author's Bio: 

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