The Dark Side of Change - Part 1

By Mark Buchan | 1 May 2015

Change can be difficult it’s true and at the heart of any change are the people.  It may seem like a relatively straightforward task to replace or improve an old process with a new one such as DSDM, but this simplistic view is one that ignores the people element of change. In this article I will talk about a phenomenon that I continually encounter in my work as a coach and consultant, that of the Dark Side of Change.

In this first part of the article I would like to draw out what I believe are the causes of this experience and in the next part discuss what we can do to minimise this impact.  But first let’s discuss what I mean by the Dark Side of Change.

What is the Dark Side of Change?

Everyone reading this article will either have heard many many fairy tales as a child or might now as parents or caregivers relay those same tales to the next generation.  In these fairy tales there is an enduring theme, how good triumphs over evil.  Evil tends to be personified in the form of a wicked stepmother, cruel step-sisters, the big bad wolf and so on. In fact any drama you care to mention will in some way embody this battle between good and evil.  Whilst not a fairy tale, I find the modern day equivalent, that of the Star Wars series exemplifies this struggle, and the characters of Darth Vader and the Emperor Palpatine to embody this dark side so well.

In many of the change programmes that I have worked on there is nearly always a “Darth Vader” that reveals themself while the initiative is ongoing.  This person may start to act in ways that that are detrimental to change effort either by passive aggressive behaviour or often times with just full on aggression with no passivity.  If not confronted, these dark behaviors can have serious repercussions on the outcomes of the change efforts and may often be reason for the failure of the project.

So, before going on to talk about how to deal with these dark forces, I would like to explore the underlying causes. I believe it is only by understanding the underlying reasons that we can go about making any inroads into tackling evil. Once we have understood we may ultimately, and surprisingly, turn the dark side into our ally in our change effort.  Continuing the Star Wars reference we might then see Anakin reunite with his son Luke and hopefully live happily ever after.

Collaborative and engaging change or change being done to you?

Think about this for a moment if you will; there is a popular expression used in change management circles “people don’t like change”.  This expression is so widespread that it has acquired the status of being a truth.  I, for one, am someone who loves change – it would make me a poor change consultant (and maybe a hypocrite?) if I didn’t.  So this “truth” as presented is not universal and in my experience is wholly contextual, i.e. it depends on the person and their own preferences regarding change and it also depends on the change itself.

But now consider this expression, people don’t like being changed.  I believe this is more of a universal truth. I cannot remember a single person who appreciated change being dropped or forced on them.  I use these evocative words of forced or dropped because quite often that is peoples experience.  The proposed change is often against their will or appears to come out of nowhere. Logically a person may understand the need for change and will most likely, given some time, see the benefits of change.  But this is just a logical connection to the change and not an emotional one.  People may see the reasoning of the logic behind a change, but they also need to have an emotional connection to the change for them to truly buy it.

Very often this change is framed as “they need to change” and this may often imply that “we”, the changers, do not.  This message is one that is not well received in the group that are having change prescribed for them and thus some level of resistance or reluctance will result.

Reluctance or resistance?

So this brings about a big subject in the world of change and change management, that of resistance.  Too often I hear change managers talking about resistance to change when describing the force they experience in others who don’t immediately comply with the change.  I feel that this is somewhat of an injustice to those having to assimilate the change.  Oftentimes people may actually be reluctant as opposed to resistant and I’m sure as you reflect on this you are aware of the difference.  In truth, the number of people who openly resist change initiatives are very few; of course, as I said earlier, this depends on the change and the people.  Reluctance, however, tends to be far more widespread especially in initiatives that have been poorly communicated or where consultation has been minimized or even left out altogether.

When working with new teams or individuals I always ask them to be healthily skeptical towards the change effort as opposed to out-and-out cynical.  To my thinking these attitudes reflect the difference between reluctance to change and resistance to change.  Many people are reluctant to change - and rightly so; people need to be given time to digest change rather than swallow it whole.  Not all change is good, but neither is all change bad. It is important that people be given time to explore and clarify, especially if the change has impact on the day-to-day role of the person being changed. 


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