What became of the broken hearted?

There was a really good session at the Public Sector Launchpad (#pslaunchpad) last night (5th November 2013) and this blog is about one tiny offshoot of one of the conversations.

The conversation was about resistance to change in organisations.  A young and enthusiastic local government worker was discussing the difficulties of getting a long-term workforce to change.  It reminded me of a situation earlier on in my career when I encountered a similar situation, and the comments I made last night seemed to strike a chord so I thought I’d write a short blog to share it.

As a starting point in analysis I find it helps to accept that everyone is always rational all of the time.  Therefore if someone is resisting a change which is pretty demonstrably good, not only for them and their working practice but also for the service user, then it can be baffling as to why they’re not whole-heartedly engaged.  Some conversations I had helped me to realise that these people were basically “broken-hearted”.

As some point, perhaps early on in their career, they had been engaged in a change process which offered similar benefits and they’d gone for it – full throttle – sacrificed (temporarily) family considerations and worked their socks off to make the change happen, but for whatever reason (change of management, change of political administration, poor implementation) the change hadn’t actually happened, or hadn’t delivered the desired benefit.  This was a real disappointment to them (they were gutted), but when the next such change came along they thought “this time – let’s make that last wasted effort worthwhile after all…” but sadly, and perhaps for a different reason, that intiative failed too.  They lived through a third and fourth, and possibly even more change intiatives and became, basically, broken-hearted – they have been “jilted” by the organisation so many times that there is real pain in committing themselves to another programme which, of course, to the initiator, is perfectly logical and consistent and how could anyone not…

So I thought I’d share that thought.

Obviously, not everyone who is resistant to change is “broken-hearted” in the way I’ve described.  Some of the most change resistant people can be young people who are experiencing a change that is happening to them rather than led by them and for whom this is suddenly the biggest thing in their world.  And in some cases people have other motives for resisting change – but I think that “broken heartedness” can be a useful explanation for some.

What’s the solution?  That depends massively on the specific case and the specific individual.  Talking to people about their past experiences of change can often be really insightful – you may even learn from things that have gone badly (or well) in the past, and you may be able to help people realise that something really has changed or is different this time.  In some cases it may take a couple of years of actual delivery of change to convince people that this time it’s really going to happen.  Sometimes people are so totally jaded that they need a change of scenery and a new role, possibly in another organisation – I am conscious that that sounds like a threat and no doubt it would be perceived that way, but sometimes it’s true.  The solution may be about involving them in a co-designed process (though I suspect that they’ll also have had that before too).  The last category of solution if you have a whole organisaiton like this to deal with is to introduce an external change so significant that people have to react – a merger of authorities, a full-throated implementation of a Commissioning approach, a TUPE transfer to another entity (not necessarily private sector) – may be the kind of intervention that will help lift them to a new stage of change – it depends.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. An interesting article Jonathan. My own experiences over the last couple of years supporting leaders within a range of organisations suggests that most think of change as a ‘thing’ a project. Their interest focuses upon delivering it on time – like a parcel coming from an online shopping agent, rather than a living organism with which they must engage. Most fail to take time to understand, nurture and support individuals in this dynamic environment. As a consequence they fail to respond to physical and emotional changes within the environment that will affect the outcome. Hence the ‘broken hearts’ that you refer to in your blog that result from a lack of insight in to how to bring about a change more effectively.

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    1. jonathanflowers says:

      I’d agree with that. Because change is seen as a series of discrete events there is scope for people to be burned as one change is abandoned and another begun.

      It contrasts with an experience from my even earlier (pre LG) career talking to a “head of service” about change whose story was “after a a few years of not much change we suddenly had this change programme and I thought my world had ended, but we got through that and survived – and things were actually better. Then the next change came along and that felt bad – but it was better again, and so now I say ‘bring it on'”. I think you can do change in waves, but they need to managed – and allowed – to succeed! What was happening in that case was the change capacity/change readiness was increased by each successive change, whereas in the case of my “broken hearted” colleagues each (failed) change reduced tolerance for future change.

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