Cynicism and Resistance to Change – What Works?

Cynicism is a unique form of resistance to change. It’s a way of saying, “This will never work so I’m not even going to participate.” People tune out, or surrender, without even a flicker of interest in the possibility of making something happen. Cynicism is a nasty disease in many organizations (and in many households, too). It is contagious – in part because people can make their cynical statements sound wise and experienced, often humorous or sarcastic. Having been a management consultant, charged with implementing organization changes, I’ve heard lots of those:

  • “Talk to Arnie about that idea. He loves science fiction.”
  • “Last time they did that, 24 people lost their jobs. You won’t get much help from us.”
  • “It won’t work here. This is a government organization.”
  • “We’ve tried that every year since 1972. Is it the 1-year anniversary already?”

We have a lot of data on handling resistance to change from my consulting practice and from Jeffrey’s MBA classes. Here are three lessons we learned:

  1. Cynicism is a signal that the change process was not designed with employee input – people’s ideas and perspectives were not considered in planning the course of the change. There was little recognition that the change would rearrange (and in some cases, damage) people’s daily work activities and communication links, causing them personal and professional setbacks.
  2. Cynicism is a sign of unfinished business. Something happened in the past – a project, a merger, a change of some kind – that was never completely closed out. When the change was finished, people had no way to say what happened to them, or to ask for help in repairing the damages or disruptions they experienced. Many are still injured in some way, perhaps having missed a raise or promotion, or simply not being heard.
  3. A person’s cynicism puts blame on “the system”, “management”, or just “them”. It avoids any attempt to consider what personal role someone might have had, or wanted to have, in the change process or its outcomes. It also prevents any serious inquiry into what might work, due to the firmly held view that “nothing will work here” – which prevents future changes from going smoothly.

What to do? Meet with the key people involved in the past changes, and create closure. I used two whiteboards, labeling them “What Did Work?” and “What Didn’t Work?”, and asked people to tell me about the last big organizational change in those terms. I wrote down each response, building both lists. If the “what worked” list didn’t have much in it, I asked them, “What would have worked?”, which usually triggered ideas.

These conversations sometimes took an hour, sometimes longer. The tone of the conversation usually shifted after about 20 minutes, from expressions of individual anger to making corrections clarifying what was already written on one of the lists, or adding new memories and ideas. At some point, the responses became relatively free of cynicism and sarcasm, and I could ask my punchline question:

“If we could find ways to prevent or fix all of the things on the “Didn’t Work” list, and if we used some of these ideas from the “What Worked” list, then could we make any future changes happen successfully?”  This usually opened a discussion of what would have the next change go more smoothly, with less pushback, resistance, and fallout.

Sometimes, to move ahead, we need to help people close out the past and see it in a new light. Even when executives want to move forward quickly, it is useful to take the time to assist key players in getting on board. Changes don’t work if people aren’t listening.

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