On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
The challenge of change requires willingness to learn.

In my latest book, I extolled the virtues of capitalizing on change. Other authors -- not to mention a host of management gurus -- have made similar arguments. Yet in many business organizations today, getting people to change is still the greatest obstacle to progress. In discussions with my colleagues, a number of reasons and explanations have started to emerge. Consultant James Barber worked closely with me several years ago in changing a unionized factory workforce into a flexible, productive learning organization. It wasn't easy, nor was it done perfectly the first time -- but once in place, the new organization was very powerful. Afterward, Barber reflected on how harsh he had to be initially to move people out of their "comfort zones" and get them to even consider change. I remember that Jim had to use some pretty salty language to get people to open up to the idea of change and learning. One day he shocked a room full of union employees by telling them that he was about to use the "most obscene" word he knew in the next part of his presentation. The room went deathly still for several seconds, and then Jim whispered the word: "unemployment." Perhaps the first step in learning to accept change is a tough one for everyone. But the big challenge is often to get executives to understand that leaders must become learners, too, or the whole initiative will fail for lack of their support when things get tough. (And, take my word for it, they will get tough). The middle-manager ranks often face the most difficult dilemma. They are caught in the middle between hourly folks who aren't sure why they should change in the first place and top managers who think they don't need to change if everyone else does. (Sometimes even the managers aren't sure why change is necessary.) The professionals -- engineers, accountants, systems people, etc. -- watch this whole drama unfold, perplexed by the fact that none of these groups understands anything nearly as well as they do. (After all, they have hard numbers, formulas, accounting rules, and computer code to fall back on.) If introducing change sounds like a difficult and trying process, it is. As all of this was rolling around in my mind, author-consultant Rick Maurer chimed in with one of his very insightful e-mails. Rick, who wrote Beyond the Wall of Resistance (1996, Bard), said: "Two of the levels of resistance that I covered in the book have become very important in my work with clients." He went on to explain that client companies were confusing the two levels and that confusion was a fundamental reason for their problems with change. Level 1 resistance is based on lack of information or on honest disagreement over the facts. Everything is on the table; there are no hidden agendas fueling the resistance. Level 2 is personal and emotional resistance. People are afraid. They fear that the change may cost them their jobs, reduce their control, or cause them to lose face. We often treat all resistance as if it were Level 1 and consequently miss the mark in our change efforts. For example, we use slick visual presentations to explain the change with nice neat facts, charts, and time lines, when what people really want to hear is: "What does this mean to me?" Level 2 issues can be addressed only through conversation and conflict. Slick presentations aren't enough. Jim Barber was right when he said that to initiate real change people have to open up and learn. Maurer was right, too. We all want to know, "What does it mean to me?" If management can deal with that question and facilitate discussions about the "ifs" and "buts," it then becomes possible to deal with the other aspects of the change. Adapting to change requires new learning at all levels. And leaders must become learners if they hope to lead the way. Otherwise, Jim Barber's most obscene word -- unemployment -- is certain to be spoken more often. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville, Tenn. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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