Change is difficult is it not?

It’s little wonder that so many change initiatives fail so miserably. I believe that one of the main factors around why change fails so often is because people (either individuals or teams) just aren’t ready for change. This then results in some interesting behaviour that many people call resistance to change. This “resistance” if we call it that occurs most often when change is pushed on people.

I instead prefer the softer expression “reluctance to change” as a starting position because people very often don’t know what they are saying yes or no to. I would say that it is a fool who accepts anything that is thrown at them, so to my thinking, intelligent people are ones who examine and explore the suggested change. So, questioning the change should not be seen as resisting the change as is so often interpreted by change managers.

So rather than assume them to be resistant (because maybe this idea has been tried before and failed) maybe the change catalyst or agent should enter into a dialogue to take some time to find out where the intended object of change (the coachee) is coming from.

This approach of pushing change on people and then labelling them as resistors when they disagree is not the best way to start any change initiative. This is why I gave my book the title “Leaders, it’s not how you finish … it’s how you start”, there is a better way to do change and it will result in much better results.

Do stages of change exist?

The diagram below comes from Prochaska & Diclemente’s Transtheoretical model of change (TTM), and is one part of the TTM referred to as the Stages of Change Model. It was developed in the 1980’s as a behaviour change model to help guide healthcare practitioners who were helping people stop smoking or with substance abuse issues. I find it a useful tool in helping me to understand where my clients stand in relation to a proposed change. The model is of course not perfect, but for me its better than some of the alternatives out there …

OH NO! Not the dreaded Grief Cycle

I’m often dumbfounded and lost for words (that doesn’t happen often) when I hear so-called change experts citing their model of choice is the Kubler-Ross model. Seriously??? According to Gibbons, her model was debunked some years ago …

“We also thought that people went through a psychological transition such as Kubler-Ross’ Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance – since then here original research has been debunked. Further, projecting a view of how people approach death onto business change ought to raise a few Spock-like eyebrows. Change models such as this do the rounds on LinkedIn daily.”

Gibbons, P. “The Science of Organisational Change.” p304

I couldn’t agree more with Gibbons. I had made this point to a room full of change “experts” some years ago who thought they were all rather hip and groovy and sounded really informed when they proclaimed that this model had changed their world! “How is dealing with death a useful analogy to draw a parallel with organisational change?” I inquired. I was from that moment on identified as a troublemaker and wasn’t asked back to their subsequent meetings. No sleep was lost on my part I can assure you, although I did worry about the clients they were seemingly “helping”.

Buyer beware…

Having said that the Stages of Change model may raise Mr Gibbons’ eyebrows somewhat. There are mixed reviews out there on the Stages of Change model (part of the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of change). Personally I have found the model useful just as long as I remind myself that according to Litell

… the research findings into the model suggest that the proposed stages are not mutually exclusive and that there is scant evidence of sequential movement through discrete stages in studies of specific problem behaviours, such as smoking and substance abuse.

Litell, J. H. “Stages of change. A critique”

That said when I interview people around change initiatives I can hear them telling me what stage they are currently in. Far from being a psych-assessment, it instead informs my approach as to what to do next as part of the coaching or consulting engagement.

No change required here … move along!

For instance, when I hear “its not me that needs changing – it’s them!” I can be fairly certain that my intended coachee is sitting firmly in the Pre-contemplation “stage”. Does that mean I throw my hands up in the air and declare that change isn’t possible? No, of course not. Instead, it tells me that the person maybe isn’t aware of how they maybe contributing to the problem at large; but to now wade in to tell them this would not build trust. Instead, I might ask them to describe what problems they do see, what their perceptions are and thoughts about the solution to bring about change if indeed change is needed.

Build trust before making change

In short, the job of the change catalyst is to build trust and to start a process of dialogue where rather than advocate the solution, instead inquire about the problem and the potential solution. Doing this with authenticity, humility and respect for the other (the intended object of change) will build a powerful co-creative relationship in which change will have a far greater chance of success. This approach has more chance of rallying people to your cause rather than pushing them away at the start! It’s far more difficult to win people back to the cause once they have decided that you are “one of them”.

In my younger days as a budding change catalyst, I had to give a presentation to shop-floor workers at a respected engineering firm. I had got no more than 5 minutes into the presentation (I hate powerpoints and for good reason) when I could hear a group of people snickering at “the back of the class”. I tend to approach “dissent” head-on because I feel that people who are dissenting really have something to say and very often what they have to say is worth listening to! I stopped the presentation and asked if there was a problem, being the comedian I checked to see if my trouser zip was undone (we call it flying low in the UK!!!). “Yes there is a problem!” called out a voice from the back “Its always the same here – you fucking consultants come in here and tell us what to do and you know nothing!” Alrighty then! Game on – I love a challenge!

“May I ask your name?”. “Colin” (not his real name). I replied with the utmost sincerity “Thanks Colin, and what you say is somewhat true about consultants … I know some crap ones as well as some good ones. But I’m actually very intrested to hear your experiences with these other consultants and how they havent helped to solve your problem. Could we meet up after the I have finished here today?” “If you like!” he replied. End of heckling.

What followed after that session was a number of sessions that Colin and I had where he poured out his heart to me. He had 40 years of experience in that organisation and had become so jaded with the revolving door of change and the endless number of consultants coming throuigh it that thought they knew better than him! Colin became a supporter of the change we proposed and because he was highly regarded in the organisation we were able to turn reluctance in to engagement. I still think back fondly to those days and considered that baptism of fire to be one of my greatest learning experiences that has informed my practice ever since.

In closing

The big mistake that I see consultants or other change catalysts make is that they tend to put people in boxes (resistant or supporter), they often think they know better (I’ve got my pre-fabricated model to change you) and don’t take the time to demonstrate their humanity and build collaborative, cooperative relationships. This self-assured hubris that I see all too often in many of my contemporaries makes me wonder how they get any paid work at all! But that’s not my problem and it’s certainly not how I work, hence why I don’t work for large consultancies.

One saying that I remember from my training many years ago was this “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. I still believe a caring consultant will be more effective in the long run than one who doesn’t take the time to find out how ready for change their client actually is!