Breaking Down Resistance

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By Phil La Duke

When it comes to Organizational Change, for my money you can’t beat the work of Edgar Schein. Schein is considered by many to be the father of Organizational Development; he coined the term “corporate culture” and if for that fact alone should be revered in the same hushed tones in which people talk about Edison, Deming, or Jobs. I’ve written about Schein’s work before, but a thousand or so words ranted in frothy hyperbole from what amounts to a hot head and malcontent is hardly sufficient to explain the great man’s thoughts, let alone apply them to safety.

Schein postulated that organizational change can only come when the resistance to change is less than a combination of dissatisfaction, vision, and next steps. (Although, in fairness, Mao said “all change comes from the barrel of a gun” and I think that there’s a fair amount of truth in that as well, but given the sad fact that most worrisome Human Resources toadstools won’t allow firearms in the workplace—never mind pointing them at the heads of those mouth-breathing dolts unable or unwilling to change—Schein is what were left with, and we could do worse. But then I digress.)

I have devoted much digital ink to fomenting discontent, casting the vision, and crafting logical next steps, in fact, I make my living doing all three; but what about resistance? How do we recognize and attack it. Week after tedious week I work with organizations that seek rapid change—a means of accelerating culture change without merely masking symptoms by obfuscating them with a climate change. Some say it can’t be done—that culture change is a long and laborious process, but since time is money, most notably money that ends up in the pockets of safety culture salesmen (mostly through greed or stupidity) I distrust the argument—I say it can be done. I’ve done it.

Tackling the resistance is the toughest nut to crack in Schein’s formula; chiefly because it can be so tough to spot. I’ve found that people offer clues to their true feeling in the language they use so recently I set pen to paper to identify some of the most telling signs of resistance to change.

“We’re a lot better than we used to be”

People love to get credit for growth, even when the growth they’ve achieved is inconsequential. I’m a big fan of the cartoonist, Al Martin. Martin’s glimpses into human relations in comic strips like Mr. Boffo and Willie and Ethel are without peer; I urge you to seek it out. In one strip I particularly like, Willie and Ethel are having a conversation, and I’m paraphrasing here so if I don’t get it exactly right bear in mind that sending me an indignant email will only result in me unleashing a response so filled with bile and venom it would make Linda Blair’s Regan in the grips of full demonic possession gasp in incredulity, disgust and shock. So ANYWAY, Ethel says to Willie, “Mr. Johnson takes his wife out to dinner once a week. Mr. Johnson, brings his wife flowers. Mr. Johnson takes his wife out dancing…” Willie responds “Hun, why don’t you do us both a favor and stop comparing me to Mr. Johnson and start comparing me to some of those guys on death row.” Essentially, when someone in the organization tells me how much better than they were than they used to be they are telling me that any future change must be seen in the context of the wonderful things they have already achieved. I’m not handing out blue ribbons, and you wouldn’t get any credit for sucking less than you used to even if I was. Similarly, you get no credit for “we’re better than industry average”. Okay, so effectively you are telling me that you kill less people than the competition. That’s like John Wayne Gacey saying, “hey, at least I didn’t kill as many as Ted Bundy’ at his sentencing hearing. When people defend their mediocre safety performance by comparing it to the way it was when mastodons roamed the earth it makes me want to puke; I can feel myself getting dumber for their company.

It’s easy enough to refute the position that the organization isn’t quite as bad as it seems because they used to be worse. Doing a crappy job at safety is doing a crappy job, irrespective if you are doing a less crappy job that you used to.

What’s the requirement?

When governments started issuing regulations for workplace safety they never expected that businesses would see the rules as the gold standard for Operational Excellence, and yet those who resist change are quick to challenge suggested changes with a smug “what does the law require?” There is often a chasm between what is right and what is legal, and an even larger gap between the smart thing to do and what it takes to comply with a regulation. People asking what the government requires are the equivalent of the four-year old who reminds his mother that she said he couldn’t have A cookie, not the 15 he ate. When I hear this I silently wonder where Mao’s gun is when I need it.

How do we respond to “What’s the Requirement?” Simple: “what does your business sense tell you is required?”, “What do your ethics tell you to do?” and “what would someone with the sense God gave geese do in this circumstance?” Remember when asking these questions to resist the temptation to backhand slap the people who asked what the government requires as much as is practicable and reasonable.

We’ve Been Doing It This Way For Years and Nobody Ever Got Hurt.

This statement comes in many forms from the pleading ignorance of the implied, “why do we need to change when it’s obvious that it’s working” to the obstinate smirking challenge of “hey, you don’t know @#$%, we work here and this is fine, if you had a modicum of sense you wouldn’t drag your sad-assed theories here; go play and let the grown ups talk.” I had a social maladroit skulk up to me after one of my speeches where I made the statement that the “absence of injuries” does not denote the presence of safety. He smiled one of those smug, “gotcha” smiles and said that I was wrong because safety by very definition meant that nobody got hurt. I smiled politely and congratulated on his fortune of being immune from dying in a car crash. He looked puzzled, so I explained that by his reasoning the fact that he had not yet been killed in a car crash meant that such an event was impossible and he was immune from a death from this cause. Hell, he may have well been immortal—God, after all, looks after the stupid.

How Safe Does It Need To Be?

I usually get asked this question more in the form of a challenge than a good-faith request for information. This question might seem an expression of tolerance of risk, but in reality it’s usually a way of condescending the point of safety, a way of rolling your eyes and saying “can’t we give people a little credit?” I’ve found that the best answer to this is “how dead do you want your people?” or “how quickly do you want to kill your people?” When dealing with resistance to change, I’ve found that escalating rhetoric can be useful.

What About Common Sense?

People have a deep and abiding need to blame people for not having common sense; it’s a neat way of garnering agreement that the injured party deserves to go home on slab or in a body bag because they exercised inferior judgment. It’s reassuring to know that only the stupid and careless get hurt; it won’t happen to us, because we would never act so irresponsibly, do something so stupid, or behave so recklessly. Dr. Robert Long does a nice job dispelling the myth of common sense in his book Risk Makes Sense (note: I continue to plug Long’s book even though I don’t think he’s speaking to me at the moment owing to one of my sharpish replies to one of his patronizing comments he made on one of my posts; he essentially took his ball and went home. That not withstanding, his books are really insightful and worth the read.)

Common sense is essentially the collective wisdom of a population. Those of us who grew up in small towns understand the way folk wisdom grows up out of the collective experience of yokels who meet in the post office lobby and worry over the price of corn and the amount of rain we’re getting this year. But now that we live in a truly global community and are part of the world population there is no common sense. My life experience is far different than an urban Britt, a rural Chinaman (is this still an acceptable term? No slur is meant; I just don’t have the energy to change the nomenclature every time someone halfway across the world get’s chuffed because they prefer to be called something different. Note to all: If I am looking to insult you, my message will be clear, and if I am successful, I will leave you wondering at the accuracy of my slurs until you shuffle this mortal coil. So if “Chinaman” offends you, grow the @#$% up.) or many of my coworkers. So, no we can’t rely on common sense in the same way we can’t rely on magic, divine intervention, or blind luck to keep the work place safe.

Words alone won’t end resistance but having the dialog that challenges these statements undermines the resolve of those who resist change. As Edgar Schein notes the most effective path toward organizational change lies in attacking all elements across the formula.

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