Top-3 Tips for Managing Change in Trying Times

Bad boy on blue blanket background. Angry child with no words around.

Jennifer Bush, is president and CEO of JB Advisors Inc. and a trusted advisor to senior leaders in philanthropy in the United States. Jennifer helps achieve clarity & confidence in their day-to-day operations. JB Advisors Inc. helps transform ideas into action, build roadmaps to success, and provide clients with customized, collaborative, and thoughtfully crafted solutions.

In the face of economic and policy changes that are rocking the philanthropic world, foundation leaders need to find new and innovative ways to motivate their board and staff. Part of this task is to help others within the organization to embrace change. One of the hardest aspects of a leader’s job is getting people to “follow.” Common sense says that the solutions are obvious…at least to the leader. The reality, however, is often different from our “common sense” solutions. How often have you thought:

  • If only my board member would agree to talk with our mayor and Chamber of Commerce president about job creation, we could get more public support for our education initiative…

  • If only our grantees were willing to merge their operations so that they can leverage back office resources

  • If only my 10-year employee would be more invested in our work instead of doing the minimum and leaving at 4:00pm… How do you overcome resistance to change?

How do you stop seeing others as obstacles – they are just being stubborn, irrational, and unable to adapt to new ideas – and actually turn their resistance into a positive force for the results you want to achieve?

Peter Block, an author, consultant and active citizen in Cincinnati, Ohio, has spent his life exploring, writing and teaching about empowerment, stewardship, chosen accountability and the reconciliation of community. Early in my career I had the opportunity to work with Peter to deepen my understanding about how individuals respond to change, and how to facilitate shared understanding and increase an organization’s ability to travel down the same path even though people may walk, jog, or even bicycle down parallel, perpendicular and curvy lanes that intersect in multiple places along the way.

The biggest lesson I learned from Peter is that it’s human nature to resist change. People naturally resist dealing with difficult realities that make them uncomfortable. None of us enjoy pain. All of us want to feel in control and don’t like being vulnerable to others. We want to feel that we have made a difference, that our voice really matters, and that others count on our expertise. Resistance occurs when we feel that we are going to lose control or that we may somehow jeopardize our political power in our circle of influence.

What does resistance look like? I’m sure you can think of times when you experienced something like this when introducing a new idea or way of working…

  1. Give me more detail“: Asking for finer and finer bits of information. No matter how much information you share, it’s never enough.

  2. Flood of Details: You ask a question and you get a 15-minute soliloquy outlining everything that happened since the beginning of the time.

  3. Time: People are so busy that they just don’t have time to talk with you. Maybe after I’ve completed this huge deadline…

  4. Impracticality: The “real world” isn’t ready for this kind of innovation.

  5. Silence: This is the toughest resistance of all. Never believe that silence means consent. If you are dealing with something important, it’s not natural for a board member, grantee or employee to have no reaction.

  6. Intellectualizing: Occurs when someone shifts the discussion from deciding how to proceed and starts exploring theory after theory about why things are the way that they are.

  7. Moralizing: “Those people”, “they need to understand” “you should do…” are all phrases that indicate someone wants to talk about how things ought to be rather than how they are. Putting oneself on a pedestal of superiority indicates that the individual thinks he or she isn’t part of the problem.

  8. Pressing for solutions: We all want solutions. But pushing for solutions too early keeps us from learning anything important about the nature of the problem. If we don’t truly understand the problem we want to resolve, then we can implement solutions that have nothing to do with the real nature of the problem.

This list is not all-inclusive but it does give you an idea about how challenging resistance can be to discern. How do you know when people have legitimate concerns and when they are expressing resistance?

Resistance only occurs when the concerns about facing the difficult realities and the choice not to deal with them are expressed indirectly. By blaming the lack of detailed data, not enough time or budget, lack of understanding by “those people”, or being silent, all of us can avoid implementing a new idea. Instead of saying, “No I don’t believe this is the best solution” (a direct, clear statement) resistance can include everything from the obvious such as intense questioning and criticism to more subtle behaviors such as changing the subject and giving one word answers to questions. Indirect expression of resistance is especially subtle in the South. Our “conspiracy of southern gentility” often makes it difficult to really understand others’ true viewpoint.

So, what do you do? You allow the resistance to spew forward like a storm, and not fight it head on. Feelings pass and change when they are expressed directly. Don’t fight the resistance. If you fight, argue or otherwise appear remotely antagonistic, the individual’s resistance will intensify and expand. Instead, encourage full expression of others’ concerns so that they can be diffused and addressed. The goal is to shift from indirect expression of concerns to direct statements of real issues and reservations. Once you know the true concerns, you can respond effectively.

Peter recommends three steps:

  1. Identify what form the resistance is taking. Look for cues and then put some words to what you see happening.
    a. Trust what you see more than what you hear
    b. Listen to yourself. Are you uneasy, bored or irritated?
    c. Is the same idea explained to you for the third time? Are you answering the same question for the third time?

  2. State, in a neutral tone of voice, the form the resistance is taking. In other words, NAME the resistance.
    The trick is using neutral, rather than blaming, language.
    a. Use everyday language. Think about how you would describe the behavior to a close friend.
    b. Be simple and direct.
    c. Put into words what you are feeling about the discussion. Use “I statements.”

  3. Be quiet. Listen. Let the other person respond to what you’ve said.
    a. Don’t take it personally.
    b. If someone is resistant, it usually means that you have touched something important and valuable.
    c. Most questions are statements in disguise. Listen for what isn’t being said.

Managing a foundation (or any organization) through times of change is rarely easy, but knowing how to recognize and deal with resistance certainly helps. For more information, I’d recommend Peter Block’s book, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (1993). And remember, although it’s the downside of human nature that causes resistance, it’s the upside that is ultimately what makes philanthropy work.