Unblocking organizations: How to create change as leaders

April 20, 2021

By: Chris White

I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast with a client when she suddenly asked me this question: “Is there such a thing as change resistance?”

I pondered her question as I chewed my eggs benedict. As an officer in a large company, I knew she wasn’t asking a naïve question. Of course, resistance-to-change initiatives are very common. Rather, her curiosity was about whether occasional skepticism can morph into deep gridlock. Could change resistance overtake and define whole organizational cultures?

The client drew a parallel to medicine. In some cases, a patient can develop a resistance to drugs. The medicine stops having a positive effect, and prescribing higher doses just compounds the problem. So, can culture also become impervious to attempts to change it?

The quick answer, in my experience, is yes. There are two caveats: 1) Most organizational cultures weren’t “born” this way; they became that way over time. 2) They do not have to stay that way. It may be difficult, but the condition can be healed.

Chronic change resistance is primarily due to a breakdown in organizational trust and communication. Rather than being caused by one big thing, such chronic issues are often caused by an accumulation of slights — cultural death by a thousand cuts of incivility. Symptoms include employees checking out, acting out and walking out.

  •  Those who check out may keep coming to work most days, but only in body, not in spirit. They live as organizational zombies. They find it emotionally safer not to try at all, rather than to try and risk being hurt by the culture.
  • Those who act out find ways to undermine the organization’s objectives in word or deed. They pick arguments or they deliberately do inferior or even damaging work. Their decision to lash out is a defense mechanism. This is their way of coping with the pain inflicted by the culture in which they find themselves.
  • Eventually, some people walk out to another company — or just leave in order to get themselves out of the toxic environment, even if they do not have a new job waiting.

Surprisingly (and horrifyingly), many people do not walk out. A 2013 study by Professors Porath and Pearson showed that only 12% of those who experienced incivility at work left because of it. Instead, employees stay and continue checking out and acting out. They infect others, making it harder for them to positively engage. And so chronic change resistance sets in. Although many want positive cultural change deep down, they have become cynical and unwilling to consider what that might look like.

Transforming such an environment to become a collaborative, supportive, creative workplace is a serious undertaking. It takes time and skill. But it is worthwhile. Gallup estimates that about half a trillion dollars of productivity are lost in the U.S. economy each year as a result of disengagement.

Here are three steps leaders can take now to begin moving in the right direction:

Be the change.

In chronically change-resistant workplaces, leaders’ interactions are limited to the bare minimum. Messages are delivered without sensitivity to how they will be received. There is little to no personal connection between colleagues.

To start unblocking communication, start conversations with genuine connection and curiosity. Minimize trying to prescribe solutions or direct action. Just ask, then actively listen and learn. Every. Single. Day.

As an executive, you must lead by example, and you must require this leadership behavior of your colleagues, too. It may take a long time for some people to begin opening up — many months or years, in fact. A commitment to asking and listening is a foundational leadership practice, not a quick fix.

Execute flawless follow-through.

As people start to offer input, you need to take action. However, no leader can fix everything, nor would you want to do so. It would replace a chronically change-resistant culture with a culture of learned dependence on you.

Instead, bite your tongue and reflect back what you hear. Then ask people what they recommend should be done. Where it makes sense, ask what you may do to support this happening. The key from here is follow-through. You absolutely must do what you say you will do and require that of others as well. This not only makes improvement, but it also starts to regain trust: the cornerstone of a foundationally positive culture.

Aim higher.

By this stage, you may notice the culture beginning to change. It is far from perfect, of course. But there is more energy. More ideas. Some spark of tentative hope appearing in people’s eyes and voices. Without losing sight of the listening and responsiveness that enabled the culture to begin unblocking, you may now start aiming higher.

As the culture opens up, people become more willing to enter a dialogue about what is possible in the future: your shared purpose, vision and values. Note that this is a dialogue. It is a process. You may of course share your thoughts, but so too will others. Together, you can build a clear picture of a better tomorrow and the hope that you will get there.

Chronically change-resistant cultures can feel like a debilitating disease. True positive leaders can heal with patience, humility, wisdom and compassion. The challenge is great, but so are the rewards. Transforming the culture opens up new possibilities of joy and excellence, both organizationally and personally for all involved.

Chris White is Principal at Riverbank Consulting Group and a faculty associate at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

The original article was published in Forbes. Copyright © 2021 by Chris White.