Poking The Bear

Diana Schwenk is a brilliant blogger over at Talk To Diana.  She has an interesting device she uses on the weekends called Diana’s Enormous Book of Quotes where she takes a quote she has seen recently and writes of its meaning to her.  Last week her post was entitled Poking The Bear, and co-incidentally touched on the topic I wanted to explore this week.  Please take a moment to visit Diana’s blog as she has much to add to our collective knowledge and awareness!!

In honor of Diana’s great work I wanted to name my post after hers. In her post last week Diana said: “Have you ever tried suggesting a new idea to a group that’s been doing things the same way forever? Did it result in blank faces looking back at you? Did it give rise to fierce opposition? If they bought the idea, did it pay off?” and equated the whole process to being “like poking a bear!”

Wild horses couldn't make me change
Wild horses couldn’t make me change

I get it and I’ve seen it.  I’ve also been on the other side … part of the group that is being asked to change and can identify with the metaphor of being the bear and feeling the prod of the stick.

What’s at work for us when this is happening? As an instigator of change, we are committed to our ideas!  We believe in them!  They are important! We are sure that when the change is in place things will be better!

So what’s wrong with the group?  Why don’t they see it the same? How can they ignore the benefits of this great idea? Why are they getting their backs up?

I’ve seen some interesting literature on this topic lately.  What it really comes down to is that the enemy of change is resistance.  What this author (Rick Maurer “Beyond The Wall of Resistance”) proposes is that resistance to change appears at three levels:

  1. I don’t understand it! This is about information. It is the easiest level of resistance to deal with as we know what we know and we can communicate it.  The problem is that when we encounter resistance we always assume it is level one resistance and can’t understand why once we’ve explained what we want to do that people continue to resist.
  2. I don’t like it! This is emotion at work.  Usually fear.  Generally we are comfortable where we are at.  We might not be totally happy, but we are comfortable how to “show up” in the current situation.  When something is to change we start to worry about how that will affect us.  Will we still be comfortable in our new circumstances? To get past this we need to really engage the team in both understanding and shaping the change.  We have to be willing to let the team change our change!  Sounds tricky!
  3. I don’t like you! Now we are talking about trust.  More specifically, mistrust! This is deep-seated resistance.  When level 3 resistance shows up we’ve got work to do! Nothing changes until we can re-establish trust with the group.  That needs honest, open, vulnerable engagement.  It needs great listening, and it needs us to uncover and agree to what is needed to re-establish trust and then stick to our commitments.

No wonder the bear gets grumpy when poked!

Imagine if caterpillars resisted change!
Imagine if caterpillars resisted change!

I think there is actually another aspect to this that makes it even tougher.  Groups form norms.  These norms are important as they are the boundaries and rules for group membership.  They provide a stable operating environment and let the group succeed at whatever first caused them to be a group.  What that means is that by their nature groups want to preserve the status quo, and may go as far as to see things outside their norms as illogical, irrational, etc.  This isn’t resistance to any particular change … just change to resistance in general!

How do you see this at work in your world? For me, I see this in myself.  I know the three levels of resistance are at play … not in all changes, but in some.  Sometimes when I am the change sponsor, I find I might get seduced by addressing the “I don’t understand” level of resistance.  Having done a masterful job of explaining the need for change and why the change being proposed is the best possible solution, it is easy to believe that everyone else will see it exactly the same way.  It doesn’t work that way!

I can think of one particular example of a proposed change in my world right now that I know that there is resistance at level one, level two and possibly even level three that hasn’t been addressed.

How about you?  Any good stories about changes that went well (or not)?

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

12 thoughts on “Poking The Bear

  1. Thanks for breaking it down to three levels of resistance Ian. I have been the resister too on a level three level – not a fun experience for me, or the ones trying to implement a change! Thanks for linking to my post and your kind words as well…. means a lot to me.

    1. Thanks for this Diana, along with the inspiration you gave me. Your blog is a wonderful piece of work.

      I loved finding this piece of knowledge, and the levels make so much sense. As a leader I find it a great tool to understand this, particularly as levels 2 and 3 aren’t usually directly apparent. We have to watch for these when change is in the air!

  2. I wonder if another obstacle in addition to “i don’t understand it, i don’t like it and i don’t like you” is I don’t like me”.

    Our ability or desire to change, or experience change can potentially be limited by our personal self worth. When I am already disappointed and failing my self, the barrier to change seems so great and so futile.

    But when I elevate my own potentiality, i embrace change and mat even pursue change and new ideas.

    Its all speculation this sunday morning but it did raise the question for me.

    Thank you for the list Ian

    1. That is an interesting addition! It seems to me that “I don’t like me” is more omnipresent. Even if we addressed levels 1, 2 and 3 from Maurer’s work we may still be unsuccessful simply due to inertia or apathy on the part of those who we want to embrace the change.

      I’m going to have to muse on this!!

  3. Hi Ian,

    I mostly come across “I don’t like it!” when I am involved in change processes.

    For example, just this weekend I facilitated a conference of scout leaders, where the participants discovered that there is a need for change in their strategic set-up. They were quite certain that there is too much workload for the leadership and not enough leaders who are willing to do the job. At the same time, most of them resist to begin an in-depth change process, fearing the change it might bring. They refer to a saying from Cologne (Germany): “Et hät noch immer jot jejange” which translates to “it always worked out well”, meaning there is no need for change. These naysayers used loud voices and odd arguments why there would be no need for change. They tried to dominate the discussion and pushed for ending it.

    I wonder if they aren’t clear on their own fear of change. Perhaps if they would recognize it, they could be more open to directly addressing and thus overcoming their fears.

    The naysayers weren’t the majority this weekend. The scout leaders agreed to look into their organization and discuss new/other forms of leadership and workload assignment.

    Best regards from Germany!

    1. Thank you for the contribution Karl. I especially like your comment “I wonder if they aren’t clear on their own fear of change”. I think that is so true at two levels … first that there is fear at all, and then once it has light shone upon it to examine the true nature of the fear.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. From my experience the second level is a common stumbling block stemming from people comfortable in their old ways. Even if convinced the new way is better and they trust you, they still do not want to change.
    Another reason I would add to the list is exhaustion or saturation and the need for breathing spells of normality between changes.

      1. Probably, or even mistrust – your third category. Didn’t you (leader) say that things would be better if we made this change? Why do we need to change again? I need respite and trust in the “process” of change (which you mentioned in your previous post on trust) that there is a positive end-point to the change.

  5. Ian…as always, an engaging expedition into ‘bear poking’…I am reminded of these lines from a poem by Jennifer Wellwood…

    She begins with this poke….
    ‘My friends, let’s wake up
    And stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.’

    She continues…
    …’Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
    And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.

    Then this…
    …’Let’s stop making deals for a safe passage:
    There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.’

    I wonder then if, whatever the origin of resistance to change, we humans prefer the safe slumber of the freeze mode of our primal brain and just don’t want to wake up.

    1. Thanks for this Kerry. I wonder that too. I recall the words of Brene Brown who says we can’t selectively numb (freeze) our emotions. When we numb a negative part (slumber to stay safe) we numb the positive parts as well (the endless possibilities represented by change).

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