Implementing Agreements: The Ordeal of Change

Change-Spinning-Pattern

The real test of a collaborative agreement only begins when the changes it requires hit the streets. That’s when it gets personal. Carrying out an agreement usually means that particular people will have to do things differently, pay costs they’re not used to paying, live with new restrictions, new requirements.

The negative side of change is often the first to be noticed, even if an agreement’s hoped-for benefits have been well-publicized. They may look fine on paper but quite different when change comes knocking on the door.

Half a century ago, Eric Hoffer wrote in The Ordeal of Change:

We can never be wholly prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs inordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling.

That’s especially relevant when it comes to implementing a collaborative agreement. Every collaborative leader and practitioner works hard to ensure that all the interest groups necessary to produce and support an agreement are in the room.

Even processes that are well designed can’t possibly include everyone. Representation is not a perfect system. There is a wider public and there are operational staff within implementing organizations who haven’t been in the loop. They may hear of it only during or after formal adoption. Even if they’ve heard of it, the potential impact may not have been clear.

The first test of implementation takes place inside the very organization(s) charged with turning its provisions into actions. Those actions may require changes in the way staff and managers do their work. They may have to master new skills, new procedures, new goals and metrics to measure progress. That can look risky to both career prospects and professional self-esteem. And fears at that level will likely trigger resistance to change.

Person Under Stress

As noted in the earlier post, resistance is often considered an irrational obstacle to implementing new ideas and methods. There is likely a group ready to embrace the changes; they “understand.” The resisters “don’t get it” and stubbornly cling to their familiar ways.

What is often overlooked, however, is that those in favor of the change also have an emotional response. Instead of feeling fearful and threatened, they feel empowered and excited. In both cases, what happens is that people personalize the change. They favor or oppose it by imagining what it will mean for their own lives and jobs.

Marketers and politicians, among many others, have long understood that people don’t accept something new simply because they hear a list of excellent reasons. They have to be moved to act in a new way. When it comes to accepting the changes called for by new policies, both the staff charged with carrying them out and the members of affected communities need to translate the abstractions they hear into specific ways their daily personal and work lives might have to change.

Yet responses by leadership to emotional resistance usually rely on efforts to educate, to provide additional information to persuade the skeptics. That’s a rational strategy. It assumes that if each individual grasps the benefits, which seem obvious to those who support the new agreement, they should understand how their interests will be met and their situation improved, despite certain trade-offs that might be necessary.

It’s also assumed that emotion is a negative that clouds judgment. Reason should prevail through a calm appraisal of the pro’s and con’s. Emotion needs to be vented, gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. They are matters of individual adjustment.

If the change is deep enough, those assumptions don’t capture the reality. There are several dimensions that will not be touched by additional information and education.

  • Emotion and reason are not good or bad. They are different ways of evaluating experience. Emotional responses indicate not only the intensity and hence importance of the concern. They also are signals about basic values that shape daily life. And as noted above, they are a principal means by which individuals internalize and make sense of impending change.

  • Emotions are not entirely internal to individuals. People react on a feeling level to an event or perception of some kind and look to others experiencing the same thing for validation of that personal reaction. If you learn that most of the other staff in your program or neighbors in your community or whatever type of group you’re part of may share the same feeling you do, it’s a great relief. In that sense, emotional responses are highly social and are legitimized by being shared.

  • One of the realities that is often forgotten in the push to carry out the terms of an agreement is that whatever change it requires is experienced in a broad context of other, unrelated shifts that are taking place at the same time. If the cumulative effect makes life or work harder, the latest change might be experienced as the last straw. Future benefits may not materialize, but I’m paying yet another price in the here and now.

So what to do?

  • Start by recognize the legitimate feelings of the opposition – and show understanding of the larger context of change that is also putting pressure on them. Demonstrating that understanding lets people know you want to be responsive to the impacts they face.

  • Take a collaborative approach in figuring out how to proceed from this point. Those who believe they’ll be harmed need to have a chance to communicate exactly what they’re concerned about and know that they’re really being listened to. If the response is more one-way flows of information to show how mistaken they are, that may only increase the frustration. They’ll believe they’re not being heard, and the divide between adopters and resisters will be reinforced.

  • Create a forum to allow the expression of the fears of loss related to specific changes but then go beyond that to elicit ideas for action that respond to those concerns. This may well require the help of a facilitator trained in the many methods for working in this context. They will know how to structure and conduct meetings of this type to produce positive outcomes.

  • To build on those results provide learning opportunities on how to put new ideas for action into practice. Organizational staff need training and/or mentoring tied to their specific assignments and assurance that they’ll be given adequate time and opportunity to master new skills. Community members need hands-on workshops close to home that give them a chance to learn step by step what they can do to carry out the ideas they’ve helped develop.

There is no way to accommodate everyone’s needs or respond to every concern. But there are ways to address the ones that are widely shared. Publicity campaigns and testimonials won’t do it. Responsive collaboration during implementation can make a positive contribution.

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