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The Real Reason Why People Struggle With Change

Despite the project implementation plans, communication strategies and stakeholder meetings, I’m sure at one point or another you have experienced your change project hanging on by its fingertips as on the surface, people seem unwilling to change.

While this resistance can often be attributed to power, politics and positioning, Kegan and Lahey (2001) encourage us to consider the notion of competing commitments in their article “The real reason people won’t change”.

Their research found “resistance to change does not reflect opposition. Many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment. Their action looks like resistance to change but is, in fact, a kind of personal immunity to change” Kegan and Lahey (2001).

Fear of failure, fear of success, painful memories, fear of more responsibility, fear of conflict, lack of trust, racial identity, core values may be underlying factors.

Next time you feel opposition having gone through your usual change management process, or ideally embedding this process in at the start of your scoping process one-on-one or in a group, the 3 questions below may help you uncover some potential underlying competing commitments.

1. Consider, while there will always be people that love to moan and see the negative in a situation, often people complain about things they care about.

If you feel there is more substance to the typical gripe, asking….”What would you like to see changed at work so you could be more effective?” sets you on the path to hopefully engage in a meaningful discussion.

2. Challenge people’s contribution to the problem they have identified. Ask them “how they are positively trying to improve the situation?”, or another probing question could be to ask them “to think of an example when they have intentionally or unintentionally acted in a way to undermine or obstruct the change?”.

3. Another approach could be to ask people to recall an example where they have seen positive results from the proposed change and how they have supported this?”.

Through this conversation, you will start to hear people’s competing commitments. You will also start to see what they value in the change and what they are comfortable doing to support this. Knowing this can help you to reframe your offer.

Important: Don’t change the offer to try and please everyone, speak to their competing commitments to try to move the situation forward.

Additionally, I believe strongly that people need time, which managed change programmes don’t always account enough for. People need to hear the proposition over and over and OVER again to; digest, critic, talk about with their friends, families and colleagues and they need to process this information in their own way.

As leaders, it is our job to; communicate, listen, employ emotional intelligence and dig a little deeper, as without teams supportively alongside us, none of us will be able to reach our fullest potential.

For more blogs on professional development, leadership and change management, please click here.

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