Resistance to change

Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who is perhaps our nation’s leading expert on organizational change, outlines ten reasons that drive resistance to educational change initiatives:

  1. Surprise, Surprise! Decisions or requests that are sprung on administrators and teachers without notice.
  2. Excess Uncertainty. Not knowing enough about the change will result in the “Walking off a Cliff Blindfolded” syndrome.
  3. Loss of Control. Feeling that changes are being done to, rather than done by, those affected.
  4. Loss of Routine. Concerns that change will require administrators and teachers to question familiar (and comfortable) routines and habits.
  5. We’ve Seen This Before. Expectation that the initiative is temporary and it will stay incomplete, meaning the best strategy is to lay low and not contribute to success.
  6. Loss of Face. Change implies that the former way of doing things was wrong. Some administrators and teachers may feel embarrassed in front of their peers or staff.
  7. Concerns About Future Competence. Educators can question their ability to be effective after a change: Can I do it? How will I do it? Will I make it in the new situation?
  8. Ripple Effects. Change in one area can disrupt other projects or activities, even ones outside of work.
  9. More Work. Organizational change often increases workloads.
  10. Sometimes the Threat Is Real. Change often creates real winners and losers, and people worry about where they will end up when the project is complete.

[this list is from www.reinventingeducation.org]

What strikes me about this list is that these are quite rational concerns for most school change initiatives. As leaders and change agents, we have to acknowledge the validity of these concerns and address them appropriately if we are to achieve the desired changes.

Kanter also notes that people are motivated by three key factors:

  • Dissatisfaction. This can be either positive (e.g., “We could be so much better”) or negative (e.g., “Things are really terrible”), but people are rarely motivated to make things different when they are perfectly satisfied with things as they are. However, recognize that it is often more difficult to persuade people to act because of a brighter future than because of a current crisis. This fact may  be the result of the concreteness and visibility of a crisis. Use this knowledge to your advantage, by making the picture of the possible better future as visible and explicit as possible.
  • High probability of success. When people perceive that change is unlikely to be successful, they are rarely motivated to act on their dissatisfaction. This is why small successes in the early stages of a project can be very important in shifting people’s views. Remember, the probability of success is really a question of perception, which is why [change leaders] spend time persuading people to see things differently. Moreover, an innovative idea can transform someone’s view immediately, by making plausible what had previously been almost unthinkable.
  • High value of the change. If the end result is not worth the expected effort, no amount of dissatisfaction or belief in the probability of success will motivate people to action. Furthermore, the result has to be worth the effort to each individual person. If the change will result in a loss of authority for someone or in a pay cut, that person will certainly not be motivated to make the change happen. As a leader, you have to be able to see the change from the point of view of those affected by it. People who see a brighter future – for themselves and for the organization – that is worth working for will be most likely to join the team.

These key motivating factors are interrelated, and their effect is multiplicative, not additive. Leaders of change must keep all three motivating factors at the forefront of their minds as they work to shift people’s views.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Kanter:

Even if there is some motivation to change, there is also always some inertia in the present. This can be both psychological (comfort, familiarity, routines and rhythms, etc) and operational (more work, uncertainty about end results, etc). So it’s useful to think in terms of a “hurdle rate” that has to be exceeded before someone will be inclined to act on his or her own (intrinsic) motivation. Often it is effective to couple these intrinsic motivations with extrinsic factors – carrots and sticks. These extrinsic factors can be used to help overcome resistance. Just remember that reliance on these alone, when intrinsic motivation is not present, is notoriously dangerous: as soon as the carrot has been eaten, or the stick removed, that’s the end of the motivation.

Sidenote: IBM has invested millions of dollars in the creation of the Change Toolkit, a free online resource for K-12 educators. The Toolkit is based on Kanter’s work and is intended to help education professionals be more effective at leading and implementing change. The Toolkit contains a variety of resources to help leaders implement a thoughtful, systemic approach to school change efforts and successfully address common challenges and barriers. I use the Toolkit quite a bit in my own teaching and encourage you to check it out (did I mention it’s free?).

3 Responses to “Resistance to change”

  1. In reflecting on this list, I was considering the idea of “good” versus “great” and the key point about dissatisfaction.

    I think change is particularly difficult when your workplace/school is doing a good job. While some may perceive a “crisis” because schools aren’t incorporating a new way of teaching in response to 21st century needs, most don’t perceive this as a crisis.

    So the impetus for the change is “missing.”

    I extrapolate that this can be true of any change–when the crisis isn’t perceived, it is difficult to get the ball rolling.

    I also think teachers fall prey to the “we’ve seen this before” syndrome, partly because of the poor way inservices or delivery of change is handled, and partly because of the “trends” in education that frequently change. In many districts, you have so many unrelated inservices, related to a particular “push” and there isn’t any thematic integration that ties it all together.

    So it does seem ‘top down’ and it does seem that the change is trendy or the “issue of the day” because that larger tie is missing.
    Teachers who have taught for a long time often perceive this cycle, so it becomes somewhat easy to be disdainful of the change at first, even when the process is different.

    I think loss of control is a big part of this. Teaching is a funny job–when you close the door of your classroom, you are mostly your ‘own boss’ and pretty autonomous. But in terms of the larger school, you have very little authority or control unless you are on a small campus or a principal who shares ‘authority,’ so to speak.

    I think administrators who can invite teachers in, make them part of the decision making team, and give them autonomy to make some decisions for the campus, and communicate constantly about what is changing, can make a big difference in removing a few of these barriers, particularly the barrier of loss of control.

    There’s a lot of food for thought here. Thanks for sharing!

    Since I’m a librarian, I of course, intend to get the free toolkit for my school ;)

  2. Great Post!
    I like the concept of “inertia in the present.” We often think of the present as uneventful as we go through our daily activities. But these daily events repeated over years do indeed reinforce our habits.
    It takes energy (and strong motivation) to change the course of a life on rails.

  3. Interesting conversation starter Scott. My recent post mentions teacher cognition as a potential reason for sluggish pedagogical change. More information here; http://goo.gl/IKAL4Q
    Thanks for providing the spark and this learning forum. Bob

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