Resistance to Change – An Unusual Slant

ChangeI have taught many workshop and conference sessions about facilitating change in organizations. In these classes we spend a great deal of time talking about why you need to be a change agent and how to go about succeeding in bringing about change. We review specific strategies for overcoming resistance to change. In fact, I was hired into my current job primarily because of my “expertise” in this particular area of management.

I’ve been working with several people on a project which promises to improve our transportation service for students with special needs. In addition to being right for kids, this new way to think about where students should be picked up and discharged is also right for budgets, and the communities in which these students live. I expected resistance because change is usually difficult and creating large scale change is even more challenging. Woodrow Wilson famously said “If you want to make an enemy, change something.”  I know this, so I expected – and prepared for – resistance.  Usually the opposition shows up as some variation of intentional misunderstanding, rumor generating, questioning the ability to achieve the promised results, fearing extra work, or plain denial. :  I anticipated – and I saw – instances of these and other tactics.  What I was not prepared for were the nay-sayers who objected simply because the suggested changes were progressive.

The proposed change is likely to improve significantly our approach to many students with disabilities. The unexpected form that the resistance took, incredibly, is that the change would raise the standard for providing this service. Therefore, the opponents suggested, we shouldn’t implement it because those who are not succeeding for kids currently would become frustrated by their inability to achieve the new standard. The implication was that if we “raise the bar” some who are struggling to reach the current bar level will just give up, feeling intimidated. Certainly, by that reasoning, those who are nowhere near the bar might lose complete sight of it.

In my zeal to try to improve our industry’s services for kids, I initially brushed this concern aside. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Some of the people I respect most in the education world are always trying to “raise the bar.” I admire them because they are trying to bring about positive change. If such attempts alienate others to the point that they do more harm than good, then we have a very big problem.

Here’s my current thinking on this issue (which I have spent far too much time thinking about). Although I’m a firm believer that the medical ethics principle Primum non nocere (first do no harm) has application to school transportation, I will not be dissuaded from trying to improve things because some aren’t yet ready for the change. As with any change, there will always be innovators and early adopters. The vast majority will gradually come on board when they see positive results.

There will also always be laggards and luddites. There are a large number of student transportation supervisors, trainers, and directors that don’t invest their time and energy in attending conferences, reading journals, keeping up with trade magazines, or sharing best practices with their peers. (It’s a pretty safe bet that none of them are reading this blog – in case you thought I was talking about you.)  Convincing these people to try a potentially better way is going to be a very difficult task. They may eventually come on board but they will do so kicking and screaming. It’s just more comfortable to “do it this way because this is the way we always do it and have always done it.”

I care too much about this issue to let fear of intimidating others or “losing them” prevent us from moving forward. I’m far more comfortable “doing” than “selling” but I believe there are times when we have to sell if we are going to bring the laggards on board. Hopefully, when they hear about most of their neighbors doing great things for kids their walls of reluctance will break down. I’ll be outside of my comfort zone as I’m selling the virtues of this new approach to anyone who will listen. I’m going to have to change my approach if I’m going to get them to change theirs. But as Daniel Pink points out in his new book To Sell is Human, “We’re all in sales now.”

Posted on July 29, 2013, in Core Values and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Pete: Great read and oh, so true…ever read Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”? Some thought provoking concepts regarding change and how it might be “spread” as a result of unintended (or intended) “social conatgion”.

    • Thanks Garry. Some don’t like Galdwell because he doesn’t write about “hard science.” However, I enjoy his works (including Tipping Point) because he makes some very complex concepts easier to understand. Now if we can just figure out how to make independence for students with special needs into the next Hush Puppies I’ll be satisfied.

  2. Great article Pete, I’m happy I found this blog. I have read several of your articles and seen a few of your presentations. Enjoyed them all,thanks for what you do for kids and drivers

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