Cracking the Code of Indifference…

… and Coming to Better Grips with Resistance

For a few weeks now I am fascinated by a discussion on indifference on Tom Peters’ blog. It brought to my attention that there is more than ‘good old resistance’ to organizational change. The longer I thought about it the more I realized that the number one behavior you come across in the majority of the organizational change programs is indifference instead of blunt and open ‘in your face’ resistance. So is indifference just another form of resistance? I think not. The first is a coping behavior that foils change and the latter is an authentic reaction fueling change. In this article I will explain how this influences our approach towards organizational change.
The first distinction we need to make is the difference between the intention we have inside of us and the behavior that we demonstrate on the outside. They can be in sync or out of sync. Like the quote of Ashleigh Brilliant, “Fortunately in my work there’s always a choice: I can choose to do it willingly or unwillingly”, there are four quadrants we can draw; two of which
are authentic and two that are coping behaviors:
  • Commitment: what happens when your intention is willing and your behavior follows your intentions. Let’s say this is an authentic ‘yes’;
  • Resistance: what happens when your intention is unwilling and when it is in resonance with your behavior. In his book on Flawless Consulting, Peter Block (*) lists some common types of resistance that are abundant during the lifecycle of an organizational change, they are: Need more detail, Giving a lot of detail, Not enough time, Impracticality, Confusion, Silence, Moralizing and Press for solutions. These behaviors demonstrate a ‘no’, but an authentic ‘no’.
  • The Stockholm Syndrome: The Stockholm Syndrome describes the behavior of hostages who become sympathetic to their hostage-takers. The name derives from a 1973 hostage incident in Stockholm, when several victims began to identify with their hostage-takers as a coping strategy. It is the same kind of fear of repercussions that we can find in some organizations. People lose their perspective as if they were in a hostage situation and start to act against their unwilling intent. From the outside they gladly execute, commit to the commandments that were made, so the behavior is a false ‘yes’.
  • The Otis Redding Syndrome: I borrow this one from Bob Sutton, who recalls the line from Otis Redding’s old song: Sitting By the Dock of the Bay, “Can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same”. Clearly, this describes people with a good intention who are somehow hindered to follow their intention. In this model I will call this a false ‘no’.

Fueling or Foiling?

By the very fact that I refer to the latter two as ‘syndromes’ you can guess that they are kind of unhealthy in the context of an organization. Left aside the rhetoric of Bob Sutton on Jerks that hooks most of his readers in a pointless conversation on victims, persecutors and rescuers, what interests me most is how we can get the energy we need to drive an organizational change and,
overall, a healthy work environment.

Unfortunately, I did not come across commitment – in the narrow sense of this model – all too often in for-profit multinational environments. You will be most likely to find it in smaller enterprises and not-for profit initiatives and it drives people endlessly.

Second, I am coming to the insight that resistance is a rare behavior as well. I admire it even more than commitment because not only does it fuel people to be open about what they care about, it also goes against what is expected and generally accepted. It takes courage to figure out what is not important to you and to say no to it and vice versa.

The Otis Redding Syndrome is a depressing energy drain, regardless of whether you think people are victim to it or guilty of it. The point is that it is sustained by confusion (I tend to look at confusion as a behavior). Otis Redding’s solution was to “remain the same” because he couldn’t please 10 different people. According to Sutton, that is a rational response to a bad system.

As for the Stockholm Syndrome it suffices to quote Rita Mae Brown when she says ‘The reward for conformity was that everyone liked you except yourself’.

Both syndrome behaviors are dissonant with the intention on the inside; which demonstrates the definition of cognitive dissonance. The unhealthy part? A major cause of burn-out.

The Best Approach?

‘Mayday, mayday’: If I want to be consistent with this model in my organizational change advice, I will need to revise my approach on the syndromes with a 180° angle. Until now I have always argued that resistance is not the problem (and I stick to that part) but that real problem is indifference. I argued that nothing is worse than people who don’t care. However, as I learned from Bob Sutton, indifference has many virtues, as he believes that learning not to care and what not to care about is an essential survival skill.

As a result of this insight, here is my revised approach to resistance as well as both inauthentic ‘indifference’ syndromes:

  • Counter resistance with respect because it is an authentic expression that demonstrates that people care. Receive the communication and acknowledge receipt. Then, shut up and pay attention. This aligns with the advice of Peter Block, when he states that dealing with these behaviors primarily requires allowing, supporting, and acknowledging the complete expression of the resistance. In other words: shut up, listen and acknowledge receipt.
  • We should counter the ‘cognitive dissonant’ syndromes with respect as well – no games – because this is how people try to bridge the dissonance between their behavior and their intent under the given circumstances. Instead, what we should do as a change agent is to provide psychological safety, mostly through participation in the practicalities and the execution of the change.

Both approaches have in common that they improve the execution and the organizational alignment of your program without altering the initial strategic intent of it. And it’s really the simple things that make the difference here; you stay in charge of the why and the what, but you ask people to come up with the ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how often’.
(*) Block, P.: Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, University Associates 1981.