Resistance to Change Between Groups

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Most major changes in organizations demand a high degree of cooperation between groups. And if there has been antagonism in the past, say decades old management and union mistrust, building cooperation can be extremely challenging.


Shankar Vedantam’s column on wars in The Washington Post (5/7/07) got me thinking. He notes that 54 percent of wars between nations end in negotiated settlements, but only 24 percent of civil wars end that way. Drawing on the research of Barbara Walter, he writes “opponents in a civil war usually have to lay down arms before peace is reached. Once they do so, they both have to trust that the newly formed government will protect them. Since that government is likely to be under the control of the stronger side, however, the weaker side is left with no recourse. . . if the peace breaks down.


It seems that the most inclusive approaches to change management do get people to work on “negotiated settlements” or come up with plans together.But once the sheen is off the attention to this particular change, mistrust begins to creep back in. It has to do with power, or lack of it. “Getting suckered in a civil war can be fatal.”


There is no easy answer, but here are some things I think are worth considering:


  • Mistrust usually runs deep, and people are rightfully afraid to make deals with those they fear. Agreements made during planning meetings must be protected strongly by the most senior leaders.
  • It is easier for people to give lip service to agreement, than it is to actually live by fine sounding words. (Look how many marriage vows turn out to be empty words. And those promises were made to people who were in love!) In planning meetings, be thrilled when former warring parties even agree to minor concessions with each other. These are more likely to be sincere gestures.
  • Examine the structure/system/culture, call it what you will, that reinforces old behaviors. Often our organizations, inadvertently, reward some and punish others. Two groups can make a real effort to work together, only to find that the organization is used to the old ways of working. And pretty soon things are back to the status quo.

I welcome your comments and suggestions.