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Change Resistance and Turbulence

Chaotic Systems

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw the rise of a new science – chaos theory.  Chaos looks at the potential of systems to become chaotic, i.e., random and unpredictable.  One of the most memorable products of the science is the colourful, psychedelic images (fractals) that it was once quite common to see.  Some of the early chaos theorists were interested in understanding the dynamics of turbulence in fluids – the potential for liquids and gases to behave unpredictably and randomly under certain conditions.

Since its beginnings in the ‘hard’ sciences, some people have sought to apply chaos theory to the social sciences, with limited success.  It is interesting to consider here, however, the concept of turbulence as it applies to organisations undergoing change, and to observe the difference between resistance to change and turbulence during the change process.

Change Resistance

First, let’s consider resistance.  Why do people resist change?  Common answers to this question go something like this: resistance occurs if you don’t adequately explain the reasons for the change; people resist change if it is forced upon them; people resist change if it’s unpopular; people resist change if they think it’s a passing fad, etc., etc.  What is the common thread in these explanations?  These explanations and others like them look outside the person for the cause of resistance: other people are forcing the change, other people don’t want it, or other people are not committed to it.  Resistance is seen as a person’s response to external pressures.

Of course, people do respond to their environment.  However, people are capable of more than response, and there are other places to look for the origins of resistance.  We believe that resistance is closely related to change readiness.  Change readiness consists of a set of psychological capacities and certain kinds of stories (both described in detail in our book, ‘People Get Ready’).  These capacities and stories originate from within people – they are not merely responses to outside stimuli but expressions of a person’s internal capacity and how they apply that capacity.  Resistance is not primarily a response but an expression.

How is resistance related to change readiness?  People may resist a positive change because they lack change readiness (i.e., the capacity to effectively negotiate the change process).  They may not even initially resist the change – they may think it’s a good idea, but resistance may later arise if they struggle with the actual change process.  On the other hand, people may resist a potentially harmful change for the very reason that they are ready for change (i.e., they have the capacities and stories).  The insight that enables them to discriminate between positive and negative change helps them to navigate through change.  The point is, resistance arises from within the person as their capacity and personal narratives interact with the change process.


Now we turn our attention to the concept of turbulence.  This term is seldom used in the language of organisational change.  However, the way it is used here establishes it as a different concept to resistance.  Whilst resistance arises from within the person, turbulence arises from within the system during change.  Even people who are ready for change do not necessarily like it.  Change is often demanding, upsetting, and unsettling.   It can cause disturbance within people, between people, and throughout workgroups.  This is normal, and this is turbulence.  People who don’t resist change can experience turbulence, as can people who do resist change.  Turbulence is ‘noise’ within the system – wake caused by the change process.

Turbulence should be managed, and its effects minimised.  But you can’t manage change readiness.  You can identify it.  You can put it to good effect within the change process. You can establish environments where it can flourish and grow.  You can provide training

People with high levels of change readiness are more likely to lead change than manage it. Redequip specialises in change readiness.  We have the knowledge, skills, and tools to help you minimise resistance and maximise readiness.  Why not talk to us today?

Steve Barlow

Published on 26th March 2012

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