My Articles

These FREE articles on organizational change were published in academic journals, but they are valuable for practicing managers too.

Stop Blaming Resistance to Change and Start Using It (pdf) Published in Organizational Dynamics, 2010
Resistance can be a valuable resource in the accomplishment of change. Accessing its benefits, however, requires a shift in managers’ tendency to blame resistance for the failure of change. This may be difficult – blaming resistance for failures in change is easy to do – but there are three reasons to start using that resistance:
  1. Blaming resistance can be dysfunctional for managers who perceive resistance as threatening. Becoming competitive, defensive, or uncommunicative may alienate potential partners in accomplishing the desired change.
  2. Blaming other people for their apparent resistance behaviors presumes that resistance is a unilateral phenomenon. It’s not: it is inaccurate and simplistic to view resistance as coming only from ‘‘over there, in them,’’ gives only one side of what must be a two sided story.
  3. Blaming resistance ignores the functional value of resistance. Such a purely negative view of resistance is not found in other fields of study, e.g., mechanics, biology, and electronics, where resistance is an operational factor. In those fields, resistance is inherently neutral and only takes on a value of ‘‘functional’’ (e.g., in space heaters) or ‘‘dysfunctional’’ (e.g., excessive air drag) depending on what one is trying to accomplish.
A more complete and balanced view of resistance can provide more flexibility in the field of managing change.

Decoding Resistance to Change (pdf) Published in Harvard Business Review, April 2009
       You announce a change initiative. Some employees are silent; others complain. You bristle at this “threat” and determine to squelch the resistance.
       But wait: Resistance is a form of feedback from people with deep knowledge about your company’s daily operations. Treat their concerns as valuable information, and you gain important ideas for communicating and executing the change initiative. And you win buy-in essential for success.
       Consider: A manager proposed merging the billing group with her call center to create a large customer-service function. Because this required cross-training in both tasks, everyone balked at the extra work. But when she asked them for suggestions for implementing the change, they perked up.
       One idea—billers and callers training each other—struck gold, and fostered collaboration post-merger.

Resistance to Change: The Rest of the Story (pdf, 2008) Prevailing views of resistance to change tell a one-sided story favoring change agents, proposing that resistance is an irrational and dysfunctional reaction, and that it is located only “over there” in the change recipients. We tell the rest of the story by: 1. Proposing that change agents contribute to the occurrence of resistance through their own actions and inactions, including breaking agreements, violating trust, failing to legitimize change, misrepresentation, failing to call for action, and resisting resistance 2. Showing that resistance can actually be useful as a resource for change because it keeps ideas and conversations in existence, engages more people, increases awareness and strengthens the quality of decisions. 3. Offering ways resistance might be restructured by considering resistance as a dynamic among three elements: Recipient action, Agent sense-making, and the Agent-Recipient relationship. Recipient action is the response to a change proposal on the part of the people who are “recipients” of the change, including the people who must make the change and those who will be affected by it. Agent sense-making is the set of interpretations and meanings the change agent attaches to actual or anticipated recipient behavior and communications. The agent-recipient relationship is the set of interactions that creates the context in which the first two elements occur. We discuss the implications of this new view of resistance, including new ideas about what “resistance” really is, and how to “overcome resistance” and make it work to support a change process.

Conversational Profiles: A Tool for Altering the Conversational Patterns of Change Managers (pdf, 2008) Successful implementation of change relies on effective communication. It requires managers to be aware of the effectiveness of their conversational interactions and to alter them when they need to be more effective. Change agents must be able to move among four different types of conversations: Initiative, to introduce the desired future and outcomes; Understanding, to engage participants in defining and developing the plans; Performance, to get everyone into action and producing results; and Closure, to create the accomplishment and learn the lessons from the change process.  If managers get stuck in the use of only one or two of these conversations, change implementation can be slowed, delayed, or derailed. The purpose of this article is threefold.  First, to demonstrate that managers have an identifiable pattern of talk – a conversational profile – that characterizes the interactions they use in order to implement change.  Second, to show that this conversational pattern is directly related to the progress of the change they are implementing.  And, third, to illustrate ways in which managers can intentionally alter their conversational profiles in order to positively effect the progress of change.

Resistance and the Background Conversations of Change (pdf, 2002) When managers want to win support and “overcome resistance” to change, they usually attempt to influence people’s personal experiences and assessments about the change or the people responsible for it. But resistance is not an objectively existing thing – it is a socially constructed reality in which people are not responding to the change itself as much as they are responding to the background conversations in which the change is being proposed. This paper distinguishes three resistance-giving backgrounds: Complacency, Resignation, Cynicism, and explores the implications of each, including (a) Present-time resistance to past changes; (b) Differences between personal resistance and background resistance; and (c) Ways to change the background conversations that generate resistance. These background conversations create the context for both the change initiative and the responses to it. As a result, resistance is not a personal phenomenon, but a social and systemic one in which resistance is maintained by the background conversations of the organization. Successfully dealing with this source of resistance requires distinguishing the background conversations and completing the past.

The Role of Conversations in Producing Intentional Change in Organizations (pdf, 1995) Most perspectives on change propose that communication occurs in the context of change. This article inverts that perspective by proposing that the change process unfolds in a dynamic of four distinct types of conversations. The fundamental nature of speech as performative – producing effects, functions, and actions – suggests that (a) change is language-based and language-driven, and (b) producing intentional change will be facilitated by intentional communication. Five different types of “speech acts” are identified as tools of communication and the foundation of conversation. They are: (1) Assertives, or claims; (2) Directives, or requests; (3) Commissives, or promises; (4) Expressives; and (5) Declarations. Using these five speech acts, we identify and give examples of four conversations of change: Initiative conversations to start a change; Understanding conversations to help people make sense of the change; Performance conversations to get people into action; and Closure conversations to complete the change. Breakdowns in a change process – people not getting on board, not getting into action, or not aware of any accomplishment from the change. The paper discusses the relationships among the conversations and gives implications for theory, research, and practice.

The Logics of Change (pdf, 1994) The literature on organizational change and strategic management emphasize the need for organizations to adapt to changing threats and opportunities in their environments. The ways we manage and produce organizational change are a function of the point of view we take regarding change. This article outlines three different points of view, also called  our underlying assumptions or logics, of change: formal logic, dialectic logic, and trialectic logic. Formal (Aristotelian) logic tells us that we establish boundaries to separate relatively fixed and permanent characteristics of individual and organizational “identities” such as personality, culture, or structure. Because these identities are fixed, change is, ultimately, not possible. Things are, in their essence, as they are, even though they may appear to change over time. Dialectical logic views change as the result of oppositional struggles, i.e., change is a product of conflict, and conflict is necessary to produce change. In this view, everything changes all the time due to the tensions of inherent contradictions, until one “side” ultimately wins out and a new, better synthesis arises from the struggle. Trialectics is a logic of attraction: we live in a world of change, movement, and process, and even relatively stable patterns of movement – people, organizations, and ideas – are  the products of constant motion. No tensions, conflict, or contradictions are required: everything is already always changing. Further, opposites are only a function of the frame or context we apply, which means there are no inherent contradictions. Change requires only specifying a desired result and identifying the active and attractive forces that will produce it. This is a creative process, since each of these elements can be described in many different ways to attract people to take actions that will result in new situations and outcomes. Each of these three points of view has its own language for the change process. Formal logic gives us the world of things and certainty. Dialectical logic gives us struggle, confrontation, and the rich vocabulary of power. Trialectical logic gives us a world of relationship and possibility. A table in the final section of the paper shows the different languages of change applied to an actual restructuring of the US Post Office that corresponds to the three logics of change.