Resistance to Change: Martyrs, the Oasis, and Copycats

Jan 24, 2019

By Michael Bechara, CPA

Change. It’s one of the most common words used in business. Even the greenest business school student can provide his professor or prospective employer the requisite soliloquy on why change is good, how it benefits the company, and how all employees must openly embrace change.

Ironically, a quick survey of today’s business environment leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the need for real change is no longer theoretical.

Our economic environment has not simply changed; it has morphed and metastasized to such an extent that it is unrecognizable by many. If you were to go back two years and describe to someone the nationalizations, bailouts, new regulations, and market volatility that are commonplace today, that individual would think you were describing an economy in some faraway land; however, they are very real.

In order to cope with these seismic changes, companies need to identify, implement, manage, and monitor them to ensure their survival in the coming years.

Of the steps mentioned above, the most difficult is clearly implementing change. We have often acted as a change agent to improve the efficiency, profitability, and customer satisfaction of our clients. We have witnessed many reactions from managers in implementing changes. Below we have compiled a few common impediments to enacting positive change in organizations.

The Martyr’s Excuse
Throughout history martyrs have suffered for the mistakes of others. Corporate Martyrs are no different. Often, employees compensate for weaknesses in one area of the company by taking it upon themselves to perform another function’s work. This often continues for years and becomes accepted business practice.

This is damaging to the company because it does not solve the root cause of the problem but instead shifts the burden for the problem elsewhere. In addition, this type of behavior distorts the employee review process by masking the poor performance of the underperforming area.

It is counterintuitive that these Corporate Martyrs resist changes to the organization that will benefit them as they would be relieved of the burden of compensating for another function’s weaknesses. Their resistance stems from a pessimistic view that shouldering another function’s responsibilities is the lesser of two evils. They believe any attempt at change would result in an even greater burden upon them by allowing the underperforming function to resume their responsibilities.

For example, a manufacturing plant was not allowed to create its own shipping and invoicing documents due to past mistakes. To compensate for this, headquarters’ employees created the shipping and invoicing documents on behalf of the plant which delayed on-time deliveries of products to the customer.

The key to enacting change with Corporate Martyrs is to convince them that there is a third way! Their choices are not confined to doing the work themselves or cleaning up after others; rather, a path exists to correct the root cause of the poor performance at the other location.

In the example above, a process improvement system was implemented followed by training. The plant began issuing its own shipping and invoicing documents and delivery times were reduced by three to four days.

Life Is Good in This Oasis
We all enjoy being content and comfortable. The feeling that everything is under control, that we understand and are good at our jobs is a great feeling. Unfortunately, the desire for stability and comfort can drive us to resist the changes necessary to keep us competitive.

Bringing organization change to an area of the company that has found an “oasis” is a tough sell. Change is inherently uncomfortable and even risky, and it requires effort above and beyond the daily responsibilities of those involved. Some common retorts from managers in the Corporate Oasis are:

“I get paid to manage (the system, the status quo) and I don't get paid to implement change.”

“I fear your change will create more work for me and my organization. This is unacceptable for me to endorse. I am satisfied with the current process and systems, and people like what they have.”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

In this case it is incumbent upon us to really make sure the change we want to implement is truly needed. The only way to obtain the support of those that must implement the change is through the presentation of a very convincing cost benefit analysis.

In other words, the only way to get people out of the oasis is to show them, with concrete evidence, that after the initial time and effort spent to implement the change they will end up in a better and more secure oasis.

Many change agents fail at this point because they cannot make the case convincingly enough to gain the support of those in the oasis.

Those in the Corporate Oasis can serve as a useful check against unnecessary and capricious changes to otherwise solid corporate processes. Corporate executives must make sure; however, that effective and needed changes are not being thwarted out of lethargy or inertia.

Copycat Beware
It’s difficult to underestimate the herd instinct in humans.

We are conditioned, perhaps by nature and perhaps by upbringing, to stay within the realm of what others have done before us. Many managers bray platitudes about “thinking outside the box” but when it comes to taking the risk to implement something they haven’t seen 1,000 times before, they simply wilt away.

Major advancements or breakthroughs are not attained by implementing run of the mill strategies. While incremental gains can be made implementing basic improvements, changes that will “take the company to the next level” are internally generated, unique to the company, and have never been implemented before.

These kinds of structural changes are anathema to the Corporate Copycatter. While maintaining that they are open to change, they prefer to play it safe by cherry picking ideas that have been implemented many times before.

If you are trying to implement significant change that has huge upside potential, you cannot let Copycats sidetrack you into a discussion about whether “this has been done before.” Everyone needs to understand that the company is undergoing the change precisely because it is unique and because the upside potential of making a successful change is so great.

Similar to any critical process, change within a company must be managed effectively. A clear vision of what needs to be done, coupled with the appropriate execution, will often determine the success of the outcome.

As macroeconomic changes continue to radically alter the business landscape, the ability to cope and manage change will be a leading factor in determining profitability, growth, and survival.

About the Author(s)

Michael Bechara, CPA, is managing director of Granite Consulting Group Inc. and the principal author of the Weekly Reconciliation blog. Bechara advises clients on profitability, risk assessment, accounting, and postmerger integration issues.  Recent client success stories have come in the form of greater profitability, process improvement, and transfer of technical knowledge to the client.  Advising executives and board members on corporate governance, risk, and financial management concerns also occupies much of his time.