James Conklin, Overcoming Change Resistance at STC12

In “Understanding and Overcoming Resistance to Change”, James Conklin focuses on change, rather than on management as most change management seems to do.

Why change fails

The problem with many change management initiatives is that they fail. Too many of the involved people perceive change as a thing that is “out there”. So instead of embracing the new, they resist this “external change thing” on several related levels:

  • Fear. Change threatens to undermine the skills, power and security that people have built up.
  • Reason. People argue rationally against the change because it contradicts their goals or because they simply do not understand how it will improve things.
  • Personal attributes. People may resist change because it doesn’t address their age group or their learning styles or their cultural or ethnic background.
  • Psychology. Change can incite strong emotions that leads to denial and, once again, to fear.

Why the explanation fails

James points out that these reactions involve a significant “attribution error”. We tend to blame other people’s resistance to change on them, their attributes, their lack of skills, their stubbornness. But we often blame our own resistance to change on our situation, lack of time or resources, etc.

What resistance is

There’s a more constructive, alternative perspective on resistance which is compatible with both sides of the attribution error: Resistance is one of the ways we make sense of life, specifically of our experiences in the workplace.

If we perceive resistance as a clash of narratives of different experiences, we can get away from an opposition of stubborn persons and towards an open-ended, negotiable inquiry – without losing sight of the goals! We can focus on fixing the situation by redistributing power and autonomy instead of blaming people and transforming their tasks.

What sounds very theoretical up to here, has been born out by studies from Canadian nursing homes where nurses and caretakers had initially resisted changing their procedures. I’m also reminded of other successful changes in the workplace, whether it’s Best Buy’s ROWE initiative or schemes that empower people to work remotely and still manage to hold them accountable for their work and results.

What this has to do with techcomm

For many in the audience (myself included), it was obvious that James speaks about change that technical communicators find themselves in. But James also points out that technical communicators play an essential part in shaping narratives of change.

We set the tone in customer-facing documentation: If we know their situation, we can join their conversation, explicitly compare their current situation to a new way of doing things. Then we take them seriously and address a change in processes constructively. We can even engage in their conversations directly, for example in forums or other user feedback.

If we recognize the importance that our users place on the purpose and value of their work, if we reflect not just the metrics of their work, but also the quality they attribute to it, we can improve the user experience and help to facilitate change with technical communications.