From evil-inflexible to fantastic-elastic, the not-so-simple shades of willingness to change


In an era of change, it seems very easy and almost officially appropriate to criticise the resistance to change (1) of some people, or simply their need for structure, their uninspired inflexibility. On the other hand, it seems indicated to praise the elasticity of others’ minds – the liquid minds – as they are naturals in embracing change and seem able to adapt to any circumstance.

Yet, this picture is not black and white. Change, and openness to it are dancing along the shades of grey. Inflexibility comes with a reason, and provoking people by pointing to their inflexibility usually reinforces it, if anything. Alternatively, inviting people to reflect on their own stance in a friendly way can do wonders to reduce their inflexibility. If we agree that the challenge, in change processes, is to get people to review their static/solid behaviour and need for structure and turn to a more dynamic/liquid state of mind, then let’s examine some of the major factors at play behind the behaviours stigmatised as inflexible:

There are at least 50 reasons to change and not all are bad (Credits: from MP Bumsted, Biocultural Science & Management)

There are at least 50 reasons to change and not all are bad (Credits: MP Bumsted, Biocultural Science & Management)

Ignorance

Or rather, lack of information. The first barrier to change. Why would you change if you don’t know what you could do differently? However, stigmatising ignorance slows down change as it tends to rigidify behaviours – thus raise barriers to change – whereas providing information or knowledge instead might bring people one step closer to change.

What can be done about it?

Listen to the reasons why they do what they do, ask what’s good about it, ask where it might be limited, ask them if they’ve heard about other ways to do their work, share your own experiences and point them to others with a similar profile to hear their peers’ experiences.

Focus

Second barrier. People may be aware about possibilities for change, but they’re busy with something else. Very busy. In the famous – and thoroughly prejudiced – ‘silo’, focus is sometimes what leads people to keep going their usual way. They may not want to dilute their focus. It is not a bad thing, is it? On the contrary, focus allows a team to find a common language and dynamics. It only turns inflexibly bad when the focus is pursued to such an extreme that no change is ever considered. But the primary rationale behind silos is actually valid. In addition, while silo thinking might look static and inflexible from the outside, it can be extremely vibrant from the inside. Think twice about focus…

What can be done about it?

Listen to them, understand their focus, ask what is good about it and where it might have limits, gently hint at the missed opportunities by not communicating enough with other focused minds outside.

Insecurity

Third barrier to change. Perhaps they have all the information needed and they’re ready to move beyond their original focus. But in their change process, they tend to have a rather inflexible and mechanistic approach. Well here’s the thing: the less one knows about a field, the more s/he feels insecure about it. In those circumstances, we human beings tend to fight our insecurity by looking for structure, order and rules to make sense of the field around us and to get to grips with it. We follow the rules by the book and cook the recipe step by step. It might appear slightly neurotic, but actually it’s only following good scientific practice: starting with the maximum clarity and working our way up the analysis chain adding increasingly subtle and confusing factors in the mix. Only once we have enough knowledge of a field – particularly experiential knowledge – do we feel emboldened to look at the edges and play with the rules or reject them altogether to replace them with other guiding principles.

What can be done about it?

Accept that insecurity and don’t stigmatise it. Instead, offer to experiment together with them – and crucially to reflect along the way – to bring them the experiential knowledge that may free them from the rules. If nothing changes still, we should also recognise that we all have different coping mechanisms; they may not seem logical to others, but they work for us, and that’s fair enough. Let it be.

Understanding the dynamic nature of a process of change

For all these reasons, before one changes their behaviour and accepts to move off the wall, out of the beaten track and away from the box, they usually need to stick to the wall, follow the beaten track and own the box. It takes time. It takes experience, trying and trying and failing and thinking and trying again. Little by little, rigidity makes way to softer, more playful approaches and eventually our attitude is liquid enough to go with the flow.

The lessons here?

Don’t be too quick to judge someone’s apparent inflexibility and need for structure (2); instead adopt a dynamic approach and gauge where – in their own process of change – they  are. Then reach out to them, to help them find their own way to the flow of change.

Notes:

(1)    See all the results of a google search for “resistance to change” to understand that this is a focus area for many.

(2)    See one example in this recent post about ‘how to be creative while following rules

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