[We’re pleased to welcome author Todd Bridgman of Victoria University of Wellington. Dr. Bridgman recently published an article in the Management Teaching Review entitled “Overcoming Compliance to Change: Dynamics of Power, Obedience, and Resistance in a Classroom Restructure,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Bridgman discusses the genesis of this research.]
The idea for this paper came from my experiences teaching change management to undergraduates as well as graduates. In my change management classes we examine topics like ‘resistance to change’ from both mainstream and critical perspectives. Within the mainstream, resistance by employees is often portrayed as an inevitable and undesirable response to planned change that managers must attempt to overcome. Critical perspectives, in contrast, are more likely to see resistance as positive, by prompting deeper analysis of a change, or by preventing an ill-advised or unethical one. It is recognised, however, that it might be difficult for employees to voice their concerns about change, especially if implemented from the top down, because of the power relationships involved. Therefore, we should encourage students to think about how to overcome compliance to change and not just how to overcome resistance to change.
Over time I found my MBA students could relate easily to both perspectives. Most are mid-career and have experienced multiple organizational restructures. Often they viewed these structural reorganizations as change for change’s sake by new managers seeking to make their mark on the organization and demonstrate their capabilities as leaders of change. In contrast, the undergraduates, with their limited work experience, were much more likely to accept without question the mainstream assumption that change is good and resistance is bad. After all, they have spent most of their lives in educational institutions where obedience to authority figures is encouraged, rewarded and valued.
To address this, I created a classroom activity that simulates an organizational restructure, requiring students to reorganize themselves around the room multiple times on the order of the instructor. I ask them to change their seating position in the room and once they have complied I ask them to change again. And I keeping moving them until they refuse.
The paper gives instructions for running the activity and a list of questions that can be used to debrief the exercise with students, together with their likely responses. The debrief gets them to reflect on their compliance and resistance, group dynamics that influenced their behavior and the ethical issues raised. It concludes with a discussion on how organisations can foster cultures that encourage employees to speak up.
I’ve used this activity successfully for more than 10 years and have received positive feedback on it from students. So I decided to write the paper to share my experience with other management educators.
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