Archive for March, 2011


Is it Change Resistance or Sabotage?

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Image obtained from article on the “top-25-optical-illusions-on-the-web-4”

Interpretation can be everything.  How a situation looks (or feels) depends on many things including our background, experience, and expectations.  Whether a situation is change resistance or sabotage depends on how you see it.

Recently our Organization Change Practitioners group had a very robust dialog about this topic.  The discussion was led by John P. Barbuto, MD.  John graciously agreed to write about this for Ponderings & Insights.  Here’s John’s story.

“This famous “optical illusion” image can be seen in two dramatically different ways: as a white candlestick on a black background, or as two silhouetted faces on a white background. 

It all depends upon where you focus attention.

In like manner, a recent discussion of the topic “sabotage” on LinkedIn, with the context being organizational change management, produced two very different views of actively resistant behavior.  In one view, when an organization wishes to accomplish a change and some people resist it to the extent of trying to actively prevent the change from occurring then this action was seen as an attempt to sabotage the change project.  In another view, the same situation was seen with the focus on the individual – feeling that he/she must have a reason for strongly resisting and perhaps resistance was even an action of corporate patriotism.  In the LinkedIn discussion things became heated.  Some participants even advocated that there is no such thing as sabotage.  People began to attack each other, even though this was a discussion of people who considered themselves experts in bringing about change within organizations.

As human beings we do have differing views.  We may see exactly the same situation, focus on differing aspects of it, and interpret the situation entirely differently.  If those views are additionally linked to very personal and cherished beliefs or values then emotions rise when there is challenge to the cherished view.

In human evolution and neural development emotions came before logic.  This is reflected in neuroanatomy.  The relative locations of emotional centers (in the limbic system) versus “rational thought” centers (in the cortex, particularly frontal cortex) reveal not only that the limbic system developed earlier but also that it has access to incoming information first.  So, while in this stage of evolution we often prefer to think of ourselves as rational beings, neuroanatomy reveals that emotions can hold our rational thought captive.  In the context of organizational change management we do well to remember this basic neuroanatomical lesson.

Where cherished beliefs or values are “on the line” hot emotions may usurp control from cool and analytical thought.  The ability to see a “picture” in its various forms, and consider them, may give way to defense of a particular view.  Things fall apart.  Even professionals can lose their centering and devolve into attack and defense.

So, is there such a thing as sabotage in the context of organizational change projects?  Apparently it depends upon the point of view.  Most certainly, individuals within an organization may seek to resist a proposed change, and even subvert group movement toward its accomplishment.  But, whether you call this “sabotage” or “patriotism” apparently depends upon who you talk to.”

In Conclusion…

One of the most important sentences for me in John’s story was “The ability to see a ‘picture’ in its various forms, and consider them, may give way to defense of a particular view.”  Not all the participants in the dialog were reactionary.  There were a number who did demonstrate this ability and it added to the richness of the discussion.

I believe that the ability to look at a situation from multiple viewpoints is a critical skill.  It should be both fostered in others and utilized regularly within yourself.  Often this requires stopping yourself from reacting immediately, stepping back, and digging deeper into both your thoughts and emotional reactions.  Try to place yourself on the other side of the metaphorical table and think about how the view might look from over there.  I personally find this exercise quite valuable and am in fact working to teach it to my children.  It’s a valuable lifelong skill.

I respectfully request that you not to undervalue those “hot emotions.”  Emotional responses are triggered for some reason.  Seek to understand the reason, not just the reaction.  The typical problem within interactions is not the emotional response, but rather what you say and do without thinking thru the situation.  Your brain and body are contributing to both your emotions and intellect.  Understand both.  Value both.

As noted in the prior article, Is it Resistance…  Maybe Not, it’s important to dig down into the roots of your reactions.  Often times you will find that there are more layers of analysis going on than just what is in your conscious mind or what you initially interpret through your emotional response.  It is critical that you balance the whole of yourself.  Respecting the whole of others too. 

If you can, I highly recommend following the links over to Wikipedia and reading more about how our brain works.  Understanding better how our minds and bodies operate can be useful in a myriad of circumstances.

Can you help? 

When I set up the Wikipedia links, I noticed a number of pages needed updating.  If you know individuals qualified to provide updates to these important pages of literature, please ask them for their assistance.  I’ve prompted John to see if he will participate. 

A Word of Thanks

My thanks to those of you who help Wikipedia in ways both big and little.  I believe it is one of the most important things on the Internet these days.  If each individual who uses it would commit to supporting the content development at least once a year, it would continue to be the amazing resource that it is.  Small efforts by numberous people can have amazingly large impacts.

A Shout Out of THANKS to John P. Barbuto, MD for his contribution to this Pondering & Insights article.  I’m hoping John will continue to provide insights here on how our minds and emotions connect.  I enjoyed his story and hope you did too.

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What's going on in your mind?

I had a very interesting experience with resistance this morning.  It reminded me that we should value resistance.  Yes, value it.

Within the world of change management, organizational change, organizational development, (the list goes on), resistance is often seen as something negative.  Something that you need to manage or overcome.  

However, if you step back from the existence of resistance and seek to discover the root cause, you might uncover some very interesting things.  I did.  

Resistance can be expressed across multiple dimensions.  It is something that you might experience on a mental level – through self-discussions.  It might be something that you feel emotionally – possibly raising your anxiety level.  It might be something expressed at a physical or gut level – perhaps you felt your muscles contract.  Your conscious mind is only a minor fraction of the processing that is going on within our bodies. The reactions you feel or sense are typically based on much more than what you are consciously aware of.

The Backstory

If you’ve been reading my writing for a while you may remember me talking about a great group of people that I met through Linked In. People who I met on-line that I feel have moved from the peer/colleague category to the friend category. I wrote about them in my article, Penguin Leadership: Alone in a Crowd.

The group grew organically, without any intention for it to become what it has: a sounding board, a shoulder to lean on, a group of friends to vent with, and a group to push boundaries of thinking with. We’ve never met in person – our locations range from California to Canada to Belgium. Side Note: at this point, there are six of us in the group (Bill Braun has joined us since the article was written).

The Event

This morning a request came to add another person to our group (one might say clique but that can sound negative). I had a very visceral reaction that said “I’m not sure I like that idea.” I stepped back from my computer for a bit but the feeling still hung on. So I shared my reaction – that I wasn’t sure and needed to think about this.

Given that I’m a fairly open and friendly person, my gut reaction startled me. In part, because it was so strong.  I even made a joke to the group about whether I was experiencing “change resistance.”

I forced myself to step back and analyze why I was feeling the way I was. What I discovered was that my strong reaction came from the value I placed on my interactions with this group. My fear was that adding a new individual would trigger changes in the style of interactions. Hum, time for me to dig a bit deeper.

Digging Down to the Roots

I realized that in many ways, this group has evolved from a peer group to a support + peer group. Many days this past month I would put that support has been predominant.

I believe that our Penguin Club members “get me”. They get my thinking process. They value my opinions. They seek to not just listen but to hear what I am trying to say. I can be candid, open, honest, direct, and fraught with human frailties in a safe and supportive place. How often can you say that? It’s something not to be undervalued.

I have a high level of trust from the group members. Unfortunately today, trust is a fairly rare commodity. But that’s a story for another day.

In the insanity of life that we live in these days, the value of these types of relationships should not be underestimated. They should be treasured. How many friends and colleagues out there can you say this about?

As this group grew organically, we had no defined objectives or governance structures. We simply threw out questions to the group, sought second opinions, and discussed concepts that interested us.  This morning’s experience was a fascinating study (at least to me) in group dynamics. How different the informal evolution can be from the formal structures we often engage in.

During our flurry of emails this morning we are starting to unpack what it is we want and value from this group.  It’s not always the same. 

Have we made a decision about adding to our Penguin Club, no.  Have the emails been flying fast and furious, yes.  I actually glad that we are not making the decision lightly. 

The Potential Impacts

I do believe that if there was a brand new group member, the nature of what we were shared this morning would be different.  I don’t think we would have been as open and honest about thoughts and gut reactions. 

Do I think we should avoid adding someone new to keep the status quo?  Not necessarily.  What I do want to ensure is that we as a group are aware of the potential cost and make an effort to move through the transition in a way that is comfortable for everyone.

I can say that this experience has been an interesting study in Group Dynamics, Social Networking, and Trust.  It’s a microcosm of events that happen at work and in social settings each and every day.

The lessons for me today are twofold:  TRUST yourself and HONOR your feelings of resistance.  You are feeling them for some reason.  Stop and ask yourself about the root causes.  You might just discover something interesting.  I did.  

I gained insight into myself, my wants and desires of the group, and the level of trust I was feeling for the individuals in the group.  I also learned how very important this group of people was to me.  Our interactions and discussion are precious and should be treated as such.  

That was the root of my resistance.  It had absolutely nothing to do about the potential new person and everything to do with my connection to the existing.  It was less about resistance and more about personal value.

In Conclusion…

How might this experience translate into your personal life, your work, your social interactions, or the business environment? 

Do you stop and think “why” when you have a negative reaction?  Do you explore the roots of your feelings and feelings of resistance?  Do you trust your feelings, impressions, and instincts?  How do you honor them?

Rather than just believing that resistance is something to be overcome, make the effort to understand its root cause(s).  Both within yourself and within others.  Honor it; don’t just focus on overcoming it.  Value other individual’s emotional and physical reactions as well as your own.  They are just as big a part of who the person is as the intellectual ones. 

My perception is that we often forget this; that we do not value enough the underlying subconscious processing that our minds and bodies are doing.  We need to remember the whole of ourselves, not just the individual parts.

Each part of yourself should be valued; your thoughts, your emotions, your physical reactions, as well as your spiritual needs.  When you feel resistance, unpack it a bit.  Explore its roots.  You just might find out something about yourself you didn’t expect. 

In the end, you might also find you make a different choice.

Guiding Principles

- Think Holistically
- Seek the Root Causes
- Respect the Individual
- Demonstrate Accountability
- Collaborate with Clients
- Work with Integrity, Always
- Relate to the Business Strategy
- Ensure Alignment
- Demonstrate Responsibility
- Transfer Skills

Thoughts and Quotes