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How to Overcome Resistance to Change

May 3rd 2019
anticipating change resistance

With all the changes in accounting, business and the world in general, there is simply no more standing still. At one time or another, all firms share some common concerns and challenges, such as rebuilding trust, instilling a sense of ownership, shifting their strategic focus or adapting to new procedures. 

On your path to becoming an effective executive or maintaining your status, recognize that the natural human response to change is resistance. People become attached to familiar ways of doing things, even methods they initially regarded as cumbersome, costly or ineffective. 

Individuals resist change; teams and groups resist change; whole organizations resist change. In essence, work and life are a series of attempts to resist change, incorporate it and then resist any new changes. 

The resistance that accountants exhibit when they’re confronted by change could be linked to fear of the upset to their procedures, systems or operations. Indeed, the accounting profession in general tends to attract individuals who seek order and balance and who thrive on tying up loose ends. 

Perhaps more so than in other professions, accountants are predisposed to staying with what works. Why mess with the systems that they have in place, the procedures that they follow and their measures for productivity if such approaches are working well?

The same situation that occurs with individuals also happens in companies, communities and even entire cultures. John Kenneth Galbraith, Ph.D., the late, noted economist from Harvard University in Massachusetts, wrote The Nature of Mass Poverty. While researching his book, he visited four continents to determine why some civilizations remain poor. He wondered why some groups had stayed poor for centuries.

Galbraith found that poor societies accommodate their poverty. As hard as it is to live in poor conditions, unfortunately, people find it more difficult to accept the hardship – the challenge – involved in making a better living. Hence, they accommodate their poverty, and it lingers from year to year, decade to decade and even century to century. 

You don’t face the challenges of those in poor societies, yet the demons keeping you or your team from embracing change could be just as onerous. People resist change most of the time, even in this era in which presumably people are already acclimated to it. When an individual knows and understands that a change will be for the better, he or she is still likely to resist for reasons such as these:

  • Embracing the change will take time and effort that the participants might not be willing to invest.
  • Taking on something new largely means giving up something else, and that something else is familiar, comfortable and predictable.
  • Annoyance or fear of disruption might prohibit people from taking the first step, even when it is widely acknowledged that the net result will be to their extreme benefit.

If the change is imposed externally, as opposed to internally derived, resistance might endure as a result of ego-related issues.

An effective leader anticipates resistance at the outset. He or she almost welcomes it, because it’s a sign that the change process is unfolding. Consider the situation in which change perceived to be burdensome, demanding or difficult meets with little resistance on the part of those charged with executing it. If anything, such a situation would be cause for alarm, because people would be masking their reactions.

When you understand what your troops are enduring, you have the potential to be a far better manager of them. In one example involving a war, a commander was served a lavish meal one evening. The meal came during a time when rations for his men had to be cut back. He waved away the server, in effect saying, “Bring me the same level of rations that my men are receiving.” This commander understood the importance of sharing the experience that his targets of change were going through.

Alternatively, he could have easily eaten the lavish meal and justified having such a feast. After all, as the commander of the troops, he would need to be mentally sharp and have the full benefits of a highly nutritious meal. After all, he could still empathize with the troops. He could intellectually surmise what it must be like to ingest 40 percent of one’s normal caloric intake. He could postulate on the ramifications of lower levels of protein in their diet.

He also could talk with others about calorie deprivation. Perhaps he could read about it, take notes and even plot a course of action. None of these maneuvers, however, would give him the insights that would naturally accrue as a result of him having the same meal as them.

What about you? Are you prepared to have the same meal as your troops? Or are you going to rationalize the situation, claiming that you have the intellectual and emotional capacity to empathize with their experience? 

The old adage “Do as I say, not as I do,” can be the death knell for the team leader who believes that he or she has an extended capacity for understanding the blight of others. As mottos go, “Walk a mile in my moccasins” and “Practice what you preach” are far more cogent.

Whether you lead a team of accountants or simply yourself, here are some suggestions for more readily embracing initially unwelcome change:

  1. Recall the times previously when you reluctantly gave up one method of operations for another and then realized that the new way of proceeding yielded far more benefits. 
  2. Align yourself with others who have already embraced the change and can act as trailblazers for you. It's easier to absorb new instructions or new procedures when someone who is in close proximity can guide you.
  3. Develop your muscle for adaptation. From now 'til the end of your career, many aspects of what you do could be subject to change. We have witnessed whole industries that have been overwhelmed by substitute goods or services.

Recognizing that no measures are necessarily sacrosanct, you can be among those who are more willing and open to embrace changes in the industry, in business and in society in general.

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