Organizational Resistance: Understanding how Competing Commitments Drive this Narrative.

The primary goal of any organizational change effort is to move the organization from current state to future state while minimizing the impact on the business. As a consequence of rapid changes, organizations begin to see the rising Cerberus aka the dreaded three-headed dog called employee disengagement, resistance, and adoption of the change.

Resistance to organizational changes in the business ecosystem can impede the deployment of new processes, systems, redesigned organizational structures, etc. which could translate into product delays, increased delivery costs, disengaged employee base, and reduced profits thereby making employee resistance and adoption strategies a business imperative pre and post-implementation.

Having worked in various HR verticals; organization change management, organization development, organization effectiveness, and HR strategy establishing resistance strategies and plans were paramount to project success. However, the ability to dive deep is never a luxury for those leading change due to time constraints.

The problem is this type of approach is analogous to the way we use aspirin for a headache. The aspirin treats the symptoms but doesn’t address the exact cause of a problem. Thereby, we continue to discuss employee resistance based on its symptoms instead of the actual reason.

Competing Commitments
Organizational psychologist and researchers Kegan and Lahey (2001)provides a window into why employees resist change, and it’s not what we may have come to think. They developed a theory which they refer to as “competing commitments.”

In that individuals unconsciously redirect their energies (resistance) when competing commitments become in direct conflict with stated goals. Therefore every time we go through a change that could have an impact on our lives, it is met with internal resistance and fear of the unknown. Competing commitments lends itself to self-inflicted barriers for individuals, because they have no real guarantee that the organization changes are going to improve their situation, not to mention it could be full of surprises that employees are not prepared to manage or accept.

Here is an example of a competing commitment:
Fred is getting married to his college sweetheart in one year and has gained a significant amount of weight in the past year. Fred is bound and determined to lose the weight before the wedding because he wants to look suitable for his new bride, family, and friends.

Fred started an exercise and diet plan that consisted of running and weight training, and healthy eating to lose the weight but his efforts fell short given his best intentions. Why? Because he started to skip his workouts, his meal plans were inconsistent, and the late nights at the bar.

Fred’s competing commitments were:
He was okay with his current weight and didn’t see the reason to starve for the sake of one day.

His brothers and other males relatives in the family were large men, it was acceptable in his mind.

Fred didn’t want to commit to the strict regiment of dieting and exercising long term because he knew he would not continue after the wedding day.

His stated goals (weight loss) are in direct conflict with his competing commitments, and his justification for why he didn’t need to lose weight (redirected energy) are now his anchors for resistance. For Fred to achieve his stated goals he would need to identify and remove those competing commitments to achieve his stated goals before his wedding day.

Immunity to Change (ITC)
Their theory of competing commitments helps explain what the researchers call the ‘immunity to change” (ITC). An individuals ITC creates mental barriers to understanding how one’s unconscious behavior can misdirect and change one’s perspective during organizational change. It’s due to our psychological immune system which fights change like your physical immune system which resists and protects against diseases causing organisms.

Kegan and Lahey developed a diagnostic tool, which is scalable and designed to help employees uncover their ITC. The tool allows individuals to challenge their internal beliefs and big assumptions. This process takes time, but the effort can provide tangible benefits and a significant breakthrough to help push past those competing commitments that individuals have.

Click here to view an example of the tool

Click here for the template

After you have read this information, ask yourself so what? Does this approach to employee resistance provide me with ways to reduce my cost, optimize my resources, or improve the organization?

Yes, it does! When employee resistance is high, and adoption rates are low, it can stifle the flow of your business operations and have a direct impact on the bottom line. When you commit to any heavy lifting(diagnostic assessments) up front and spend the time to uncover competing commitments, the efforts should pay dividends in the future to minimize employee resistance and increase adoption rates.

Final Thoughts
The takeaway for leaders of organizational change is that understanding resistance on the surface is a temporary fix. The key is digging into why your employees are resisting the changes and how best to combat that resistance to organizational change. People inherently want to change but fall short of the mark due to our competing commitments deep in our unconscious.

Our unconsciousness can be a powerful ally or adversary. To indeed manage change in your organization during periods of fast-moving changes, give yourself an opportunity and time to help employees who struggle with resistance to change. Incorporating a new and fresh approach to resistance can help improve or increase the effectiveness of the organization.

“The Real Reason People Won’t Change,” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, HRB Onpoint, © 2001 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.