I’m currently reading Tempered Resilience, by Tod Bolsinger, which includes this fabulous quote from the work of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky:
“People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and gain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain.”
Therefore, when a leader proposes change in an organization, it should come as no surprise that the organization’s stakeholders will resist the change, not because it’s new or different, but because it threatens loss. People who are deeply invested in a church will often become enmeshed to the degree that it becomes their identity. Thus, change creates a loss of identity and even threatens their sense of personal power within the church. It’s not the additions that come with change. It’s the subtractions that come with change. Perhaps this is why churches can create new programs easier than discontinue old, ineffective programs.
Unfortunately, when people feel threatened due to the losses created by change they engage in sabotage. Tod Bolsinger writes, “Acts of sabotage are not the bad things that evil people do to stop good being done in the world. Acts of sabotage are the human things that anxious people do because they fear they are losing what little good is left in the world.”
He continues, “At times of crisis or crossroads of change, anxious relationship systems default back to what is known, believing that it is the only path to self-preservation and survival, even if it means returning to slavery (Exodus 16:3).”
If you’ve served in any kind of organization with any level of longevity, these words will ring true. So what should leaders who aspire to lead change do?
- Don’t take resistance personally. Resistance isn’t about you, or even the proposed change. It simply reveals something in nature of those who are resisting. It’s not easy to confess that change makes you feel insecure or threatens your sense of significance. It’s easier to sabotage the change or become adversarial to the leader(s). It’s only personal if you make it personal.
- Lead collaboratively. Leaders who want to take personal credit for the new idea will ensure they are the targets for personal attacks. The wise leader will lead collaboratively when introducing change, using whatever governance devices are available to depersonalize the initiative. Even if it’s the leader’s idea, some sabotage can be diffused by introducing the initiative through boards, committees or teams.
- Be patient. Leaders can legitimately see change as true no-brainers. But not everyone responds to charts and graphs, not matter how colorful they may be. People need stories that are rooted in the church’s history where they are reminded that change is part of their rich history and such changes have led them to that point. Be willing to communicate and present the idea until people are actually tired of hearing about it. Few things in life are communicated in one message.
- Be courageous. The white’s of their eyes matter, so go the second mile by sitting down knee to knee with those who are resisting the change. Give them the time of day. They matter to God, so they should matter to you. You may not win them to your cause, but you can care about them and empathize with the loss you are asking them to accept. And that’s not nothing.
Bolsinger’s book serves as a companion to the book, Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman. If you find yourself in the crucible of leading change, I’d recommend you purchase both. They’re timely and timeless additions to your leadership library.