Forward thinking: Resistors of change — not always adversaries

Loren Simmonds

Behind the times…Stubborn…Anti-progress…Inflexible…Old School.

These are the monikers we attach to the people in our organizations that resist change. You may be one such person; however, for your sake, I hope not. Seldom do we speak of traditionalists in flattering terms.

When was the last time you heard a colleague praised for displaying prudence or circumspection? We admire the innovators and futurists — not the purists.

In today’s leadership circles, impending change isn’t trendy nowadays. Need evidence? Tune into the national news and watch political candidates jockey for position as the candidate of change. Sameness and stability are out; newness is in vogue.

Leaders in today’s world, are faced with the daunting challenge of inspiring change. Consequently, the resistors of change can easily be the chief adversaries of a person in leadership — unintentionally. A leader must be careful not to view them as obstacles to be rolled aside, pushed uphill, or sidestepped and left to collect dust.

However, if engaged diplomatically, resistors may actually be a boon to leaders of change. By welcoming a degree of change, a leader can sharpen his/her message for change, discover organizational rituals in need of preservation, and win over important allies. Before blindly alienating resistors, a leader should consider the possible upside of the loyal opposition.

Resistors help leaders to refine both the message and tactics of change.

In short, it is not that experience should shape future. Rather, that such experience should be accessed to help shape the future more effectively.

When a leader turns a deaf ear to the experience of resistors, they deprive themselves of valuable knowledge and insight — paid for many times over.

Resistors who are veterans within the organization have very likely witnessed failed attempts at change and are attuned to political dynamics that are hidden beneath the surface of the organization. Lively debate with those opposed to change may yield discoveries of previously unforeseen roadblocks. Even if resistors cannot be persuaded to join the cause of change. Dialoguing with them refines the leader’s understanding of how to communicate and enact change across the organization. But there is more . . .

Resistors are gatekeepers of much-needed support 

Change is notoriously messy. There are nearly always hiccups, delays and headaches associated with the implementation of new systems. When resistors have not been courted in advance, these speed bumps serve as fuel for dissent. Vocal opponents of change rally behind the setbacks to undermine change.

Leaders are wise to invest time in listening to resistors’ concerns, affirming their opinions, and seeking ways to co-opt them into coming changes. Oftentimes, resistors can be persuaded by a leader’s explanation, attempts  at  compromise, and personal appeal. By gaining support of erstwhile detractors, a leader defuses the threat of widespread defiance of change.

Resistors help leaders to preserve positive results

In a rush to usher in a new era, an incoming leader may unwittingly trample over an organization’s established values and cultural heritage. Leaders are responsible to challenge the process and question underlying assumptions.

But they are also wise to tread cautiously over the past. By scanning existing structures with a humble eye, they may spot time-honored rituals that promote unity and or embody the company’s identity.

If engaged on friendly terms rather than as enemy combatants, dissenters to change may be able to offer priceless insights into the power and significance of long standing traditions. Resistors may be able to champion past practices so that they are integrated into the future rather than completely obliterated. By fighting to preserve what’s best of the old order, resistors may actually facilitate the onset of change rather than impeding it.

Through out my professional career, I have worked with and consulted with over 300 different organizations.  With rare exception, I have met and worked with the “resistors” of those organizations. They included both men and women; young, middle and old age. They included a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds. The vast majority were very competent professionals, but rarely  popular with the rest of the staff or the organization’s leadership team.

Nevertheless, I came to realize that each “resistor” had a role to fill. I dedicate this column to each and everyone of them who served as my mentor in a special way – unknowingly.

Until next time. . .

— By Loren Simmonds

 Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.




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