Coping with and Resistance to Change

People have to learn to live with change, changes that take place slowly, like growing older, but sometimes changes that take place suddenly, such as the death of a family member, a serious accident, or the sudden loss of a job. Let’s look at this subject with cutbacks, economic uncertainties and debt control in mind.

Psychologists  suggest that individuals differ in the degree they enthuse about change: there are innovators, who will be proactive during the change process, and adopters, who readily accept change, but the majority, who need some persuasion, are ‘laggards’ who remain skeptical of change, and ‘rejecters’ who openly oppose change.

'I'm allright Jack' starring Peter Sellers

The decline in British manufacturing has been seen as an example of this type of thinking. In the workplace, it is up to supervisors, as ‘change agents’ to ensure influence from laggards and rejecters is diffused. Change agents of course, can be managers, union representatives, teachers, nurses or politicians..

In order to fully understand how resistance to change occurs, it is necessary to understand how individuals react to change. Resistance to change may occur when individuals perceive a threat to their self-interest. This may be fear of having to change their values and objectives, or loss of security and control.  This has been described as parochial self-interest, survival anxiety, or a desire to maintain the status quo, with which they are content with and regard as advantageous in some way. We talk about being in a ‘comfort zone’. In order to enter into the process of change, we must first accept the proposed changes as valid and relevant. In order to do so we must accept that we are currently doing something when change is inevitable, but to accept this we may lose effectiveness, self-esteem and possibly our sense of identity. People need to feel that they are constantly trying their best and it could mean a loss of face to accept or even to embrace errors.

Psychologists describe a transition cycle that every individual goes through when faced with change. They state that initially the individual may feel overwhelmed, and confused. They feel unable to understand the changes, and as with the proverbial rabbit caught in the head-lights, feel frozen to the spot. Depending upon the individual’s expectation of the situation, or the type of change, will govern how intensely this sense of immobilization is felt. This confusion is often expressed in non-verbal ways.

There is less resistance to technological change, say adopting new technology, than there is to social change, say making new friends, or change outside of established norms, say redundancy or retirement.

The individual then moves on to the next stage of ‘minimization’. People often deal with stressful events through the use of defense mechanisms, sometimes described as the unconscious strategies people use to minimize anxiety. Often the individual goes through a period of denial where he ignores the change or trivializes it.  Eventually he faces up to the reality and becomes aware of the need for change. This state can include a period of depression, anxiety, or sleeplessness due to the fact that the individual had difficulty facing up to the fact that change has occurred. The individual then progresses to a phase of letting go of what has passed, and acceptance of the change. Following this process, there is a period of testing, trying new behaviours, and finding new coping strategies. This gives way to the individual trying to seek out meanings for how and why they are different. Eventually the final phase of ‘internalization’ occurs and the new behaviour becomes incorporated into their own.

The transitional stages described relate very closely with the stages of bereavement theory of Kubler-Ross(1970), these being;  shock, anger, denial, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance.  The change agent needs to be aware that if any individual is ‘stuck’ in any of these transitional phases then forward movement toward positive changes is unlikely to occur. Using good interpersonal skills and good communication, change agents should assist participants to move smoothly through the transitional cycle.

Finally the sense of justice we all feel makes change so much easier when everybody is affected in a similar fashion. It is understandable that cutbacks that only appear to affect some people will not be easily accepted. The spirit of the last war in contrast, involved austerities seen as affecting everyone, and generally speaking, somewhat easier to bear.

See also:  Life Lessons: How Our Mortality Can Teach Us About Life and Living by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler

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