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. Talking with people one-on-one will help you to see what needs to change to get closer to consensus and will make your colleagues feel like their concerns are being heard (because they are).
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?
[…] Classic Blunder #2 – Assuming resistance is a bad thing […]
[…] professional reading for my current position has stuck with me for a few weeks. It was a couple of blog posts about change, and specifically, about the notion that people who resist change can have […]
[…] reader last week, and I put off reading it for a couple of days before reading it. Entitled “Classic Blunder #2: Assuming Resistance is a Bad Thing” it is written by Meredith Farkas from Information Wants to be Free. I can admit that I am […]
Wow, I’m surprised no one’s responded to this, yet.
I always found that “us against them” (and usually draped in “young against old” chestnut) to be rather off-putting and pot-stirring without offering any solution.
I have learned after many library positions to never just jump in and say “this sucks and needs to be changed!” even if it does. 🙂 It is always best to get input and feedback from people, to talk to them and then when change does occur, they know that it wasn’t done without them.
When any of the librarians or staff who now report to me want to enact change, I ask if they’ve thought it through in the longer-term. Can they say how long this will take and affect other jobs? Have they thought about next steps? Do they have a plan B? Have they talked to other people? The response of “pffft, whatever, you don’t like it” is not acceptable to me. Planned change involves PLANNING. And that doesn’t mean months of endless meetings,but it does mean basic project management.
I think the whole “library 2.0” ideas of perpetual beta and encouragement of experimentation gave some people the impression that thoughtful planning was anathema to doing cool stuff in libraries and that thoughtful planning = “months of endless meetings.” Some people have actually said to me when I talk or write about planning that they thought I was “innovative” and was surprised to hear this from me. Innovation and thoughtful planning are not mutually exclusive. It’s one thing to have innovative ideas, another to actually put them into practice (which requires a very different skill-set).
You hit the nail on the head with the 2.0 rhetoric. So many of those ideas pushed lacked the “now what?” phase once you launched these projects. I’ve said many times that there needs to be a demonstration that these tings take FOLLOW-THROUGH and WORK for them to truly succeed.
I think it’s been a while since I looked at resistance as being a bad thing or a good thing. It’s simply a thing–a constraint. Like budget, time, knowledge, skill and all the other constraints we have to deal with when trying to move a project forward. It helps that it’s also been a while since I’ve look at any of my projects as something that can be vindicated as a good idea or discredited as a bad idea. Projects are means to ends, implementations of goals–and any goal ambitious enough to be worth pursuing in this messy world of ours is going to have to be approached from a lot of different angles.