Being an educator and conference speaker, I’m always in search of analogies that allow me to project an image to tie it to a central idea in what I am going to expose. I confess that I like elaborate analogies because it gives me the certainty that their impact is the best memory support.
The first time I heard the statement that all change generates resistance, magnetic chess figures came to mind. I remembered that as a child it caught my attention that when trying to join some of the pieces at their base, my fingers could feel that a force prevented them from joining.
However, I had to discard this analogy because it was not useful, since there were pieces that did not generate that resistance force, coupling perfectly. The truth is that it was hard for me to find a metaphor that would reinforce the idea about the inescapability of resistance to change. In addition, I was sure there would be someone with a decontextualized concern asking for holistic explanations about the relationship between magnetism and change.
Without being resigned to not finding that play on words for my communication tools, in my consultancies in organizational development, generally focused on the public sector, I frequently encountered the controversy about resistance to change.
The outbursts of change
I always refer to a particular occasion, when I was developing the processes for a Public Foundation that was being transformed into an Autonomous Institute.
In management control sessions, decision-makers maintained pious rhetoric about change, summed up by the fact that it was inevitable.
The decision-makers were convinced that there was strong resistance to change in the institution because the results of the surveys carried out with officials and employees showed a high negative perception of the consequences that the organizational transformation processes would bring, which supposedly would reduce the possibilities of success in the changes undertaken.
With this analysis, the managerial staff of the institution suggested that the focus of my work plan should be aimed at achieving the acceptance of changes, while they identified the subjects who were less willing to promote their retirement. They basically saw my role as facilitating change.
On the other hand, in the interaction with officials and employees, it was notorious that there was a hidden influence of those who had been working in the institution for more years. For this reason, in the group dynamics, even when those who participated were those who had less time for their work, there were always cross-references about the oldest workers, even if they did not participate in the debates.
However, the message of the most experienced was always directed towards the same conception: the decision-makers approach to implementing change as an unchangeable future reality had great weaknesses because it led to denying an intrinsic quality of change itself, the alterability.
The singling out of the institution's management teams then raised an inverse logic of the process, because trying to impose the acceptance of an unalterable change reflected a symptom of resistance to change.
Based on these premises, officials and workers recommended that I should help the institution's directors recognize the need to adapt to change. For them, my role should be aimed at negotiating change. In this dialectic, was remarkable the double resistance of actors who faced the same reality and had different visions of change. There was something that brought me back to the analogy of magnetic chess pieces.
In a follow-up meeting that I had with the rest of my team, I expressed the discomfort in which I found myself due to the dynamic that had emerged, especially because I considered that, attached to strict professional responsibility, our task should be impartial, objectively focused on the functioning of the organization, without intervening in the change.
As a joke, a young associate commented that what happened was that I had touched a portion of resistance to change, but in a formal tone, she explained that we could not avoid the fact that by defining the processes of the institution, we were introducing a future operating model, and therefore we had the status of agents of change, so it was logical that all the actors involved expected that our intervention would allow adjustments in change.
The inevitable change
Determining the existence of such diverse points of view about the same reality, with the particularity that change was the main aspect of the dissertation, recalls the quantum principle that the presence of the observer modifies the observed reality.
We interact with change and its effects when they impact our environment and therefore become perceptible, but also because of that interaction, we transform that environment, having to understand that the vast majority of human beings endow our actions with feelings and emotions. For this last reason, our interaction in the face of change is not reduced to an immutable manifestation of resistance.
Our entire environment, including ourselves, is in a permanent process of change. As an immanent quality of material reality, change is inevitable. And as a continuous process, change emerges concretely in our present and future material reality.
Some manifestations of change that come from our environment are unexpected, they take us by surprise, and once they manifest there is no possibility of intervening in their causes because they are in the past. Favorable or not, when the consequences are not irreversible, we can only mitigate or correct their effects. It is an inescapable change of a forced nature. It is inescapable because we cannot avoid it, and forced because it imposes itself on our reality without us having had the opportunity to confront it.
On many occasions, this change that affects us from our environment is predictable, but despite full knowledge of its future manifestation, and despite the effort to alter its materialization and consequences, it prevails persistently. It is a change that, in addition to being inescapable, is inexorable: although we pray, it is impossible to avoid it.
Resistance to change, as a reaction to the unavoidable, whether forced or inexorable, emerges unconsciously or emotionally in the face of any manifestation of our environment over which we do not have full knowledge and control.
Part of this behavior is based on the understanding of the fateful in change, something that is always present, such as aging and death, which are consequences of the constant transformation that surrounds our lives and from which there is no way to escape.
But with the awareness that human beings have about the alterability of change, supported by the affirmation that everything in the future is open to possibilities, the apparent imposition of fate ceases to stand as the presumed obstacle to realizing our aspirations. This is because, either spontaneously or by plan, we transform our environment.
Considering the above, we can affirm that change can be promoted as a consequence of our ability to intervene in reality. And it is this transformative quality that represents a counterweight to resistance to change.
Promoting change represents a balance in our interaction with the environment that surrounds us and we transform, understanding, yes, that said balance is not a point of stability or equilibrium, but rather that it behaves in a pendulum manner, being able to take us from paralysis momentary to frenetic activity. Our ability to positively transform the immediate environment around us ratifies the potential to build a better future.
However, when we intervene in our environment, we can be responsible for producing unexpected changes for others, causing situations that become unavoidable and forced, even when we think that they will be beneficial for others.
And when we do what is necessary so that our environment knows our pretensions in advance, it is always possible that others interpret our intervention as an invasive circumstance that can affect them, eventually generating a rejection that we interpret as resistance to change.
On multiple occasions we irreverently prevail in our activity without listening to others, imposing the change that we have described as inexorable. Those who do so consciously can be called foolish. But if our actions are careless, we fail to glimpse that our intervention can reach the fateful.
We think that only the great transformations in our era require a shared effort with others, but in our closest space, collective action is equally relevant, because its effects are inevitably reflected in our material reality.
The collective transformation is based on the complementarity of the actions contributed by each one of those who participate in the change. Regardless of whether the results are the expected ones, in this common doing it represents the difference, mainly when we understand that each contribution is necessary because the change that impacts humanity is the concurrent one.
Restarting a process
I remember the week I returned to the Research Center where the moments I narrated above took place. We organize a general meeting, with directors, officials, and employees.
We approached the positions that we had found in the organizational diagnosis phase, always expressing deep respect for the considerations presented.
I again stressed that our job was to develop the processes that would establish the organization's operating model and to make it clear that our position should be impartial and balanced.
And here I explained our conclusion about the dialectic of change that was presented to us. Change is a process, so we were obliged to define a course of action in the institution.
All conscious change, which comes from our desire to achieve improvements that benefit us personally, as a group, an institution, or society, unfolds progressively, a condition derived from perfectibility, which implies conciliation and consensus to achieve the goals expected.
It is progressive because it advances gradually, it is reviewable, and because, respecting its alterable essence, it is modified to be better. For this reason, the induced change is perfectible.
Reviewing the progress of change is a pragmatic condition of collective action, which requires the reunion of the actors involved, with dialogue, reaffirmation, and amendment, but above all, in consensus, because the transformations that are sustained by agreements among many will do more feasible to overcome the material limitations of reality.
Based on these reflections, I told those who participated in that meeting that, more than my own role, the task of all of us was to integrate our collective vision in making change.
And as for the success or failure of our efforts to change, I clearly remember when I said that:
It does not matter if the result of what we do becomes different from that we intended to achieve. Doing is, in itself, realization.