Change is something that we fear or embrace. It is widely considered as the one constant in our lives. For education at present we face a deluge of reports that the pace of change shall only accelerate and its scale become more absolute. No wonder then that many teachers feel now is a good time for a move out of the profession. For others the changing face of education is seen as bringing exciting new possibilities wrapped in engaging challenges. Regardless of how reliable predictions for change may prove to be it is worth considering how individuals and groups respond to it.
An interesting article by Ford, Ford and D’Amelio aims to tell the full story of resistance to change. The resistor is that person or even group of people who are seen by advocates of change to be habitually irrational and averse to change. This perception of resistors as irrational responders to change is a critical piece of understanding how the change process is enacted. As Ford et al identify resistance to change can be seen by some change agents as a factor that lies entirely within the actions and disposition of the resistor; the 'characteristics and attributes of recipients’ (Ford et al p365). It is perceived as an aspect of their personality, a response to their fear of change, an irrational reaction rather than a considered response to the change or its representation. Rather than trying to understand the rationality of the decision to resist attributions are made that this is typical behaviour from that individual and that in time they will get on board with the change. This reference from Ford et al (p366) touches on the effect of this response ‘By dismissing this scrutiny as resistance, change agents not only miss the opportunity to provide compelling justifications that help recipients make the cognitive reassessments required to support change but also increase the risk of inoculating recipients against future change’.
When we see resistors in this light we are unlikely to take steps to convince them of the benefits of the change. Rather than taking the steps required to clarify the intentions and purposes of the change and by doing so to build genuine support the resistors concerns are dismissed. For teachers who are strongly committed to providing quality pedagogy poorly articulated change agendas can fail to meet their criteria for a change that would deliver enhanced learning for their students. In these instances much of the resistance can be directly attributed to the manner in which the change is introduced.
Where and how the change is initiated is another factor. Resistance to change is more likely to be the norm where the change is mandated externally or from management without consultation with those who must implement the change. There is an element of exclusion in such models where input from below is eliminated and the change requires highly effective communication if it is to be embraced; communication that is often lacking or fails to explain the logic of the change. A recent article by Harvard Business Review touches on why this may be the case and points to a better pathway. 'When we start with “why,” we enter the realm of purpose. While everyone resents new requirements imposed on their day-to-day practices — which is the realm of “what” — people welcome conversations of purpose.’ When the situation is reversed and input is sought, understanding grows from the purpose of the change towards the co-construction of a solution. Input to the change and the agency that comes with having input may allow the change to be embraced more readily. Thinking of future directions in the shape of the workforce based on predictions that we will all need to become creative and entrepreneurial, it is likely that efforts to be inclusive in managing the change process will become more important. A passion driven, creative workforce will demand a voice.
Two researchers provide ideas in support of this shift in how organisations approach change. Simon Sinek shows the importance of starting with 'why’. Too many organisations are clear on what they do but miss the important first step of clarifying why they do what they do. When an organisation is clear on its why change can be driven from within the organisation as all team members are able to envision pathways that are in keeping with the ‘why'. Understanding of the organisation’s ‘why’ allows for diffuse decision making without loss of direction. With the ‘why’ clarified we move nicely to the writing of Daniel Pink on motivation. The forces for motivation are described as purpose, autonomy and mastery. Purpose comes from being a part of something that matters, that enhances the things which the individual identifies as significant and is closely connected to an organisation’s ‘why’. Autonomy requires that individuals have opportunities to determine how they will engage with the work that they do and is clearly not facilitated in organisations which rely on top-down mandated change processes. Mastery is the sense that the individual can achieve high levels of competence in doing what they do and again this is not possible without individual input to the process. With no clarity on the ‘why’ and without motivation resistance to change is almost inevitable even in situations where the change could otherwise be seen as positive.
The HBR article goes on to talk about the power of 'local influencers', even those outside of the traditional hierarchy who have significant influence - "An alternative to relying on hierarchy for change is to identify and make allies of local influencers, the people who, regardless of position or functional role, have a disproportionate amount of local influence." This shows that the human factors within change are significant and that a rational strategic approach can be undone if these factors are not accounted for. Bringing these local influencers on board would require a humanistic approach based on building trust and relationships, particularly where the influencers' power comes from their connections to the workers and not to management. Rather than mandating change and hoping it will stick identifying the right people in an organisation to play a part in developing and then implementing a change initiative is crucial. First adopters are probably not the best people for this. If there are those who habitually resist change with little rational evaluation there are also those who habitually and irrationally embrace change. Somewhere in the middle are those who have a reputation for adopting change based on considered evaluations of the affordance it brings and these are the ones with the most significant influence on a change’s longer term survival.
Understanding the role that the considered evaluators of change play in an organisation requires acceptance of dissenting views. Returning to the opening points on the labelling of resistors we see that organisations would be better off embracing some of those who speak out against change. Where resistance is a consequence of reflection and evaluation valuable feedback on the nature of the change, the manner in which it is communicated and possible refinements can be uncovered or lost depending on the response of those driving the change. The voice of the resistor may not be what change agents wish to hear but it is a voice they should heed if the very best outcome is to be achieved.
By Nigel Coutts
Ford, J. D., Ford, L. W., & D'Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to change: The rest of the story Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 362-377.
Sinek, S. (2011) Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio Penguin: London
Pink, D. (2010) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books