Is it Change Resistance or Sabotage?


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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