I recall two times in my life when people I cared about called me “resistant to change,” and it hurt. Made me think. I have always thought of myself as progressive, as open to (appropriate) change (not change for change’s sake). I have always liked the notion of holding on to the eternally satisfying things in my life (my mother’s Brunswick stew) and letting go of the questionable ones (my mother’s overcooked, bacon-drenched vegetables). Sort of like southern journalist Hodding Carter’s comment that the two most important, and paradoxical (if not downright conflicted), things we can give our children are roots (like mom’s traditional stew) and wings (like being free to abandon some things and to embrace the new or different).
Once a relative accused me of being resistant to change when I was unwilling to shift positions in a six-person raft just before entering the roughest part of the Nantahala River. My reason was safety. If the remainder of the river had been less dangerous, I would have thought nothing of changing the seating arrangement.
More recently, our new senior minister began a series of changes aimed at making the music program appeal to a wider audience, but that had the effect of watering down its quality (e.g., no more singing in foreign languages). We left and joined another choir—all the while dealing with charges of being “resistant to change.” Again, it hurt, and made me (and my wife) think hard. However, the minister’s tampering with Bach’s German text to us was like messing around with my mother’s Brunswick stew recipe. He was tampering with what for us was an “eternal verity.” A non-negotiable. Gotta have a few of them in order to keep your feet on the ground. Not too many. Just enough. Surely, a different number of them for different people. That is what makes the difference, I think, between conservatives and progressives—the proportion of changes met with acceptance versus those met with rejection.
What is change? Any disruption of business as usual. How do we react to such disruption? I propose five classic ways of reacting to change:
- Embrace it—saying, “ok, this makes sense, I’m for it”
- Endure it—saying, “it’s not right, but I’ll not fight it”
- Ignore it—not really embracing it, but merely tolerating it
- Challenge it—openly resisting it and attempting to alter its objectionable features
- Reject it—getting out of its way and changing your own situation in order to escape it
In the first case above, I endured the change on the river, with the awful consequence that my wife, Jane, and her sister had a near death experience. I have replayed that in my mind, certain that I should have challenged the change and brushed off the criticism of being rigid and resistant to change. I should have been confident of safety as my reason.
In the second case, I (and Jane) rejected the change and left to join a program that was not being watered down by pandering to less sophisticated tastes.
So, what are the criteria by which we may be confident in how we react to change? I propose the following:
- Values—is the proposed change compatible with my values?
- Harm—would embracing the change do harm to others or self?
- Benefit—would embracing the change provide a benefit to others or self?
- Universalizability—would the world be a better place if everyone reacted the way I plan to? (Kant’s categorical imperative)
- Stakeholder buy in—Sissela Bok’s Lying proposed that it is ok to lie if, upon checking with all of your stakeholders—persons who could be affected by your lie, most of your stakeholders would agree with your decision. I suggest that this applies to our reaction to change also.
What has been your experience? When is it permissible to resist change?
In the future, when someone charges me with being resistant to change, I must have the presence of mind to respond with “Yes, in this case I am,” with the confidence that 1) I have my reasons and 2) resistance to change is not an all-or-nothing trait.