By Meredith Farkas | February 14, 2012
I remember when I was in library school, a lot of people talked about librarians who were resistant to change and would try to derail your exciting and innovative projects. Often, this discussion was couched in ageist “us” (young, innovative librarians) vs. “them” (old, set-in-their-ways librarians) terms, but even when it wasn’t, the assumption was there that someone bringing new ideas was right and the people resisting those ideas were wrong. After seven years of pushing change and encountering resistance to various projects in libraries, I can say with some certainty that it’s never so black-and-white.
Why do people resist change? There are lots and lots of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with being a “stick in the mud.” Some are completely reasonable and some are not. But all of them require some action on your part if you want to make change happen. Sometimes, people resist your ideas because they are not well thought-through. Maybe you didn’t consider the impact your idea would have on Interlibrary Loan or some other unit? Maybe you didn’t think about a certain patron stakeholder group. Not doing this sort of thinking beforehand can derail change by making your colleagues lose confidence in you. Do your homework.
Sometimes people resist your ideas because they don’t have all the details. Resistance sometimes comes from anxiety that can be quelled if people receive education and a clear vision of what the changed landscape will look like (and how it will change their work). Just because your vision is clear to you doesn’t mean it’s clear to your colleagues. I’m seeing that a lot right now as I work with my colleagues to build a culture of assessment. You can’t take for granted that what is obvious to you (someone immersed in that subject) will be likewise for your colleagues who are focused on a lot of different things.
It’s quite possible that your idea is not a good one. Your colleagues might have information that you don’t (and vice versa), but sometimes in a group setting, instead of offering constructive advice, people become defensive because they feel like something they know won’t work is being forced on them. Often, getting that constructive advice is key to retooling your approach to one that will be successful.
Sometimes, there are cultural issues within the organization that have nothing to do with you or your idea. Maybe a previous Director created an environment in which no one felt safe to experiment and fail. Maybe people are really cliquish. Maybe one group mistrusts another. It’s critical that you understand those cultural issues and not simply blow them off because culture will have an impact on everything you do. Organizational culture is a powerful force that needs to be understood in order to sell your ideas effectively within that cultural frame.
And, sadly, sometimes, people do things for political reasons or because they don’t like you. Maybe they want to tear you down to impress someone else. Maybe you got a job that their friend was up for. Maybe it’s about building allies for something else they want to do. Whatever the reason, this is often the most destructive form of resistance because people will probably never admit the real reason why they’re resisting you.
Do you know what is helpful to do to tease out why people are resisting your ideas? Talk to them! Invite these people to participate and have a voice in the change process. Often, if you’re encountering strong resistance, meetings are not the ideal first place to confront these issues. When I was encountering strong resistance to our learning outcomes, I met with a number of librarians individually to talk about their concerns. It gave me a much clearer sense of where the resistance was coming from than in the meeting where I was mostly hearing “I don’t like it and I won’t use it” rhetoric. Talking with people one-on-one both helped me to see what I needed to change to get us closer to consensus and made my colleagues feel like their concerns were being heard (because they were).
Sometimes, though, meetings are a great place to learn about people’s hopes and fears around a certain topic that will need to be addressed. In my case with assessment, the library faculty were asked to discuss their hopes, goals, concerns and potential barriers they see regarding implementing assessment of our teaching. A lot of issues were teased out that I know we will have to address this year if we are going to build a culture of assessment. It was also very helpful to know what they hope to get out of doing assessment.
If you’re fairly new to a library, you may want to talk to a variety of people about the culture to better understand and anticipate resistance. Make sure you hear from lots of different people, because, as most of you already know, there are as many sides to a story as there are people telling it. It was fascinating to see how my perceptions of people here changed as I got to know them versus what I was told by people in my first few weeks.
Of course in the moment when you’re sitting in front of your colleagues in a meeting feeling like you’re getting eaten alive, resistance doesn’t feel like a very good thing. And for many of us, our first reaction is to become defensive; to protect ourselves and our ideas. But when you look at this resistance as something that will make your idea better if you really listen and make sure people feel heard, it can make the process feel a bit less painful (or at least constructive).
Resistance is not, in itself, a bad thing, though it certainly can derail initiatives if not managed well. Resistance can help you hone your idea into something that will be successful. Your idea may require significant tweaking, but if your colleagues didn’t resist your idea as it was, you’d never have known that. It’s far better to encounter resistance and deal with it than to have your colleagues passively accept your ideas even if they don’t think they’re great. The latter is far more likely to derail successful change.
How have you dealt with resistance to change in your work? What mistakes have you made and successes have you had in this area?