Engaging Resistance: How Ordinary People Successfully Champion Change


Engaging Resistance: How Ordinary People Successfully Champion Change offers an empirically based explanation that expands our understanding about the nature of resistance to organizational change and the effects of champion behavior. The text presents a new model describing how resistance occurs over time and details what change proponents can do throughout three engagement periods to effectively work with hesitant colleagues.

The book's findings are illuminated by examples of ...

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Engaging Resistance: How Ordinary People Successfully Champion Change

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Engaging Resistance: How Ordinary People Successfully Champion Change offers an empirically based explanation that expands our understanding about the nature of resistance to organizational change and the effects of champion behavior. The text presents a new model describing how resistance occurs over time and details what change proponents can do throughout three engagement periods to effectively work with hesitant colleagues.

The book's findings are illuminated by examples of six different resistance cases, embedded in the transformation sagas of two real-world organizations. A fundamental premise of this work is that resistance should not be something to avoid or squash as people work to change their organizations. In fact, resistance can be viewed as a natural, healthy part of an organic process. When engaged properly, resisters can help to improve change efforts and strengthen an organization's overall transformation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Engaging Resistance meaningfully builds an emergent theory in an engaging style. Anderson grounds his framework well, illustrating how two institutions of higher education overcome resistance to change. The stories of these institutions include exemplary detail, so that students can easily transfer the lessons-learned to other organizational settings. This book makes a welcome addition to the reading list for my Strategies for Institutional Change course."—Sharon F. Rallis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, author of Learning in the Field: An Introduction to Qualitative Research and Leading with Inquiry and Action: How Principals Improve Teaching and Learning

"In a refreshingly clear voice, Anderson presents powerful ideas on transformational change and resistance in an easy-to-understand format. Engaging Resistance serves as a template that may be used by change agents anywhere who are committed to making a positive difference in for profit, non-profit, and governmental settings."—Jane C. Edmonds, Senior Fellow, Northeastern University College of Professional Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804762434
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 2/11/2011
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Aaron D. Anderson is Director of the Executive MBA Program at San Francisco State University, where he teaches Organizational Behavior, Design, and Change.

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Read an Excerpt

Engaging Resistance

How Ordinary People Successfully Champion Change
By Aaron D. Anderson

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6244-1

Chapter One

Prelude to Resistance


Personally, you and I, we know change. We have felt it. It is palpable; sometimes painful. Any parent can describe the extreme changes the first-born brings. In an organization, there is continual fluctuation as a company's reality is punctuated by a variety of forces (Romanelli and Tushman, 1994). Ask any public elementary school principal how she has had to adjust in response to cutbacks in state funding. Waxing or waning resources can bring change across whole industries (Pfeffer and Salancik, 2003). Ask recording industry executives about the effect the iPod has had on their sector. George Orwell demonstrated convincingly that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and reality affirms that the currency of power is a powerful driver of change. The lessons of AIG, Lehman Brothers, and brokers of credit default swaps in the first decade of this millennium prove the point. The calamity of the ensuing economic meltdown has led to change, whether you wanted it or not (Gilgeous and Chambers, 1999).

Change can cause anxiety. Those who have tried to quit smoking or lose weight with the latest product or fitness fad know it full well. If we could reach out and touch it, we would see that the change puzzle has many sharp edges. If we were to draw a picture of change freehand, it would no doubt include an illustration of the friction between two or more abrasive areas. In almost every substantial organizational change equation, there are those who resist and those who push change forward (Burke, 2008). Which one you are will depend heavily on how you expect the change to affect you (Demers, 2007).

In many organizations ordinary people are asked to drive change, and many are able to do so successfully. These champions can motivate positive shifts in their companies as they negotiate the sharp edges of the change process. They understand the abrasive elements and are able to smooth the contact points. They acknowledge their existence and treat them delicately and diplomatically. Indeed, as Margaret Mead suggested, behind every great organizational evolution is a small group of likeminded people who dove into the deep end of the change swamp. Wading through it, they improvised solutions to the known and unknowable problems facing them to successfully reach a new status quo.

The aim of this book is to examine the actions and improvisations that champions of change exhibit as they are knee to neck deep in their respective organizational change swamps, and to discover how they were successful. By identifying the actions and behaviors of ordinary people who, through their daily interactions, became advocates for or resisters to organizational change, we can achieve two aims: (a) to see resistance as one of the many possible responses to change efforts, and (b) to identify strategies and approaches that allow us to work through resistance.

This study of two organizations, examining roughly a ten year period, reveals the strategies and tactics champions deployed to mitigate resistance to their efforts. A critical, empirical examination of these change efforts produces a new framework for explaining the nature of resistance. What does resistance look and feel like? How does it interact with the efforts of champions and cause them to react? How is resistance engaged and surmounted to make lasting change?

Although I am writing as a scholar, the findings herein have merits for a broad audience across a broad set of industries. In the end, you and I may agree that championing change is way more art than science. Even so, my hope is simple: that the new theoretical framework presented in the latter chapters will inform your efforts to conquer the change demons that live in your organizational swamp.

The Prelude

Clearly, not all change is good and not all resistance is bad (Burke, 2008; Ford, Ford, and D'Amelio, 2008; Piderit, 2000; Waddell and Sohal, 1998). The people who promote change or perpetrate resistance can be seen as positive or negative contributing members of an organization depending on one's point of view, perspective, and history with that person (Cutcher, 2009; Ford, Ford, and D'Amelio, 2008; Ford, Ford, and McNamara, 2002). Just as we need gravity to stand, we need resistance to survive organizationally. In fact, well-placed and meaningful resistance to change efforts can prevent an organization's leaders from making harmful and sometimes fatal decisions that could otherwise lead to the demise of the very agency they are working to perfect (Burke, 2008; de Caluwé and Vermaak, 2003; Piderit, 2000). Being open to working through resistance can lead to even better results than expected (Burke, 2008). Even so, resistance is seen by many, and traditionally, as a thing to prevent, avoid, or quash at all costs (Piderit, 2000; Waddell and Sohal, 1998). The multibillion-dollar change consultancy industry is testimony to that view.

Organizational change and transformation efforts are buffeted by a wide assortment of resistance behaviors as a part of the natural response to change (Burke, 2008; Piderit, 2000). Resistance can range from relatively benign verbal disagreements to corrosive measures up to and including sabotage of the organization the resister ostensibly wants to protect (de Caluwé and Vermaak, 2003; Ford and Ford, 2009). Change champions can counter such resistance with actions that range from including potential resisters in the design phases to outsourcing whole segments of a company (Burke, 2008).

Until now, the literature has offered no comprehensive discussion of resistance behavior and corresponding strategic engagement tools (Demer, 2007; Goltz and Hietapelto, 2002). Therefore, with this book I have three goals: first, to translate for the layperson the empirical findings of my research, in hopes of bridging the gap between theory and practice; second, to tell the story of both resistance and champion behavior using real-life examples—case studies that illustrate how successful change champions experience, interpret, and mitigate resistance behavior during organizational transformation; and third, to develop a theoretical foundation for the behavior of change champions in their transformation efforts. My broader purpose is to offer a useful model for those who find themselves, intentionally or not, working to comprehend resistance to organizational change.

The cases offered in this book are stories of real people, with real jobs. They are ordinary individuals, who, through a progression of events and the responsibilities of their positions, became change champions or resisters. By adopting or adapting some of their approaches, you too might be able to lever your efforts to positively change your own organizations. At the very least, the knowledge extracted from a comparative analysis of these case offers a new empirical layer of explanation to what we already know about organizational change and transformation.

With no apologies, the cases provided in this book are taken from post-secondary educational institutions. Given the nature of the higher education industry and the fact that there are very few U.S.-based organizations (educational or otherwise) with a longer history than some of the older colleges and universities, there may be no better place to study change and resistance. When you peel back the veneer of the profit motive, resistance and change championship behavior become visible in their raw form. In that sense, I cannot think of a better place to witness and study more pure forms of resistance than on a college campus. The lessons are arguably transferable to all organizations.

All change begins for a reason.

Olivet College

On the Olivet College campus on a brisk Michigan November day in 2001, windswept leaves brushing past the original stone church and stately library whisper no hints of the ten or so years of turmoil experienced by members of the college's community. Olivet College sits on the crest of a small hill at the top of Main Street in the south-central Michigan town of Olivet; outwardly it appears to be a typical private liberal arts college—small and peaceful. Walking into the warm offices of Dole Hall or the brick 1960s-built Mott Academic Center, one picks up the first clue that something bigger has happened on this campus. Far from any sea or Oakland Raiders fans, the Jolly Roger flies in a number of offices. Scratch the surface with a few probing questions, and a saga emerges of a struggle for distinction, differentiation, and ultimately, institutional transformation dictated by the quest for solvency and survival.

Today, Olivet is rededicated to its original 1844 mission as a college for all, regardless of race, gender, and economic status, embracing the relatively new slogan Education for Individual and Social Responsibility. On some campuses, such tag lines serve mainly as brand marketing material for letterhead, brochures, and web pages. At Olivet, the slogan is more than words. It serves as a guiding principle for campus community behavior as well as a vision that shapes and reflects the entire curriculum.

At the outset of the last decade of the twentieth century, Olivet College was a tinderbox waiting for a match. Deep cleavages among and between faculty, staff, and administrators marred the campus culture. In a tradeoff, or "devil's bargain," faculty members had essentially abdicated all responsibility for the college's governance in exchange for minimal oversight and individual autonomy. The subtext of the agreement between the faculty and the administration was: "We won't ask anything of you if you don't ask anything of us." The result was indeed pure academic freedom, but the trade-off was low pay, an ineffectual faculty senate, and no checks or balances on the administration.

Under the fifteen-year direction of the former president (whose tenure spanned 1977–1992), the college effectively isolated itself by retreating from participation in any regional or national conversations about the changing climate and practices in the postsecondary knowledge industry. The administration was leading Olivet College toward insolvency, a prospect that spurred a move for retrenchment. The board of trustees had been hand-selected by the administration and was minimally involved in the operation of the campus. Many were loyal friends of the president.

According to one former faculty member, board "meetings were closed, and no one outside of the executive circle was allowed to call the members. Their phone numbers were not available to anyone—including faculty and staff." Campus visits by trustees were rare beyond official meetings and commencement's ceremonial duties. Yet a small number of trustees caught wind of the grave problems facing the institution and set the stage to act. Before these trustees were able to make a significant move, the match was struck and the tinderbox set ablaze by racial crisis.

The Struck Match

Very few members of the Olivet community have an unbiased recollection, but all point to the events surrounding the incidents of April 2, 1992, as the catalyst for deep and sweeping organizational transformation at Olivet College. While an account of the situation has already been written by C. T. Bechler (1993), a number of interviewees stipulate that the crisis-generated sense of urgency amplified the fear of a pending collapse of the college itself. For some, the incident itself was symptomatic of a larger campus-wide malaise.

Before April 2, 1992, tension between the 56 black and 634 white students had been at a slow boil. Earlier that spring, a white female student had entered the campus judicial process alleging that her African American boyfriend, also a student, had assaulted her. After the young man was found responsible and suspended from the college, a group of 20 to 25 African-American students protested the decision at the vice president's office, claiming racial bias. On Wednesday, April 1, 1992, another white student claimed she was abducted, beaten, and raped by four students on a back corner of the campus. Although no evidence was presented to prove that the incident occurred, rumors swirled that the attackers were African American men. Late that same night—really the wee hours of April 2—trashcan fires were set outside the dormitory rooms of several black student leaders.

The following evening (April 2), an argument arose between a white female student and her white boyfriend. The male left and returned with two of his black friends and began banging on the woman's door. Feeling threatened, she phoned a friend's home where members of a fraternity were living, and soon a group of students mustered to her support. Anger between the white and black students was manifest as racial epithets pitched in both directions. A number of black female student witnesses summoned additional black students in an attempt to "even the numbers." As white fraternity members were leaving the residence hall, their level of intoxication fueled a heated verbal exchange, sprinkled with a few wild kicks and punches, and ended with a fistfight between two students—one white and one black.

The brawl attracted a group of 15 to 20 students and one residence hall director. Within five minutes, two Olivet town police officers were on the scene, as well as officers from the sheriff 's department and the state police. By the time the vice president arrived 20 minutes later, the situation had been diffused: two students were sent to the hospital, and Olivet College was changed forever.

In the days that followed, the usually sedate and unknown campus of Olivet College became the focal point for a hungry national and international news media. Black and white students, staff, faculty, and administrators took their respective sides. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights began monitoring events. The bucolic campus was thrust under a microscope and every action taken by the administration scrutinized as emblematic of race relations in America. In a defining action, Olivet's black students began to walk off campus. After the president gave permission to all students fearing their safety to complete their courses and exams by mail, 52 of the 56 black students packed their bags and left for home with two weeks remaining in the semester.

The Tinderbox

Alone, the April 2 incident might not have been enough to catalyze a campus transformation. But a number of institutional conditions in conjunction with the ensuing racial tension coalesced to push the transformation forward. Olivet was suffering from a significant drop in enrollment, as were a number of colleges across the country in the late 1980s. The college's annual budget was then, as it is now, inextricably linked to tuition dollars. With a total enrollment of 735 students in 1991, any drop in tuition revenue dramatically affected college operations. A poor reputation in funding circles hindered philanthropic development, and the institution was ignored by a number of granting agencies and foundations.

With most matriculating students hailing from the state of Michigan (96 percent), Olivet College was already suffering from a poor reputation outside the state of Michigan, which was further tarnished by the 1992 incidents. One faculty member reports that they had worn out the "come to Olivet and you get a small school, low student-to-faculty ratio, and it's a nice rural campus" sales pitch. "Basically, there was no real reason why anyone would choose Olivet College over any other small liberal arts institution: we were simply not distinctive in any way." Enrollment had fallen for three consecutive years, and dropped another 4 percent in the fall of 1991.

The people on the Olivet campus felt isolated and fractionalized. Academic stagnation was the norm; most college faculty and administrators had not been to an academic or professional conference in years. Disapproval of the administration was responsible for low morale among faculty and staff, even lower than was usual on any campus. One staff member recalls that "the way that things were run in 1992 was the way that they were run back in the early 1980s." Moreover, turnover among the faculty had been an astounding 20–30 percent per year since 1987.


Excerpted from Engaging Resistance by Aaron D. Anderson Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Exhibits xi

Preface ix

1 Prelude to Resistance 1

2 The Theoretical Backdrop 19

3 From Planning to Implementation 34

4 The Nature of Resistance 53

5 Six Cases of Resistance 76

6 Engaging Resistance 119

7 Lessons from the Field 145

Appendix A Olivet College Timeline 165

Appendix B Portland State University Timeline 173

Appendix C Interview Protocol 181

References 185

Index 197

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