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The Opposite of Change is?
by Peter DeJager

According to Chinese philosophy, the opposite of Change is the growth of what ought to decrease, the downfall of what ought to rule.
-- Jou, Tsung Hwa

Perhaps it's time to do away with the word 'Change' and replace it with something which more accurately reflects how we use it in common conversation. Somewhere along the line, the word 'Change' lost some of its original meaning and became something only to fear, rather than something to possibly embrace.

Mention 'Change' and people immediately, without waiting for more details, assume the worst. Perhaps its because of how poorly we tend to manage Change, that a negative response is justified. Perhaps like a pack of Pavlovian dogs, we've been conditioned to break out in a cold sweat when someone rings the bell of Change. We've learnt that the sound of 'Change' signals the arrival of something bad.

That visceral response to the word 'Change' causes us needless problems. Not all Change is bad... Most(?) of the Change we encounter is good, appropriate, and even necessary. With this reflex in mind, maybe getting rid of the word entirely will alleviate some of the unjustified resistance?

Yet... the word is the correct one to use. Change signifies movement; it refers to a shift of the Status Quo in any direction, good or bad, improvement or decay, opportunity or threat. The opposite of Change is therefore the cessation of all movement in any direction, eternal Status Quo, perpetual stasis.

Change, in general, consists of both what should be embraced and what should be resisted. To lose sight of this duality is to respond to Change from only one perspective. To perceive Change as always negative is to side step opportunity 50% of the time.

Even the Chinese quote above chooses to look at Change from a single perspective... Working backwards from the opposite definition it offered we get...

Change is the growth of what ought to rule and the downfall of what ought to decrease.

This is just as inaccurate as the notion that Change is always bad. Change can be good or bad, desirable or undesirable, and worthy of acceptance or necessary to resist. It is also often both at the same time. Depending on who you are, and what your needs are, with respect to that specific Change.

It's been suggested that we trash the word 'Change', removing it entirely from the management lexicon, and replace it with the word 'Improvement'. There's some logic and a seductive attractiveness to that suggestion, after all, we would like everyone to believe that the 'Change' we propose is always for the better... and if it's for the better (and those pushing for it always believe it is for the better), how could anyone ever resist the proposal (command?) to 'improve'?

While the suggestion that we refer to 'Change' as 'Improvement' seems to make some sense, it constructs a dangerous trap for the unwary manager. Playing Orwellian word games is a nasty pit which most managers have already fallen into, even if they still call it 'Change'.

The trap is simple... if we refer to our Change as an 'improvement', or can only think of it as an 'improvement' regardless of what we name it, then we deny others the right to decide for themselves. This is exactly what causes people (us included) to resist Change.

Here's an obvious, but important, observation for any manager...
  • I cannot decide for you that moving to another city is good for you.
  • I cannot decide for you that it would be a good thing for you to seek a promotion.
  • I cannot decide for you that it would improve your life to purchase a new car.
  • I cannot decide for you that it would improve your business to use a new system.
Why can't I do these things?

Because you will rightly resist my effort to think for you.

By the same token... this is the difficult part for many people to accept... you cannot decide for your employees that a particular Change is good for them...

Because they will rightly resist your effort to think for them.

"But then how do we bring Change/Improvement about?" Is the typical response to the above... the answer is to allow people access to the same information that compelled you to decide that Change was necessary. If the Change is necessary, and we've hired the best we could find, then it's not impossible that they will come to the same conclusion we did... That a Change, specifically an improvement, is necessary.

The Chinese quote was sent to me by a reader a few months ago, and I've been toying with it ever since. If we replaced the word 'Change' with 'improvement' then I could agree with it. As it stands, it serves as a reminder that perceiving Change as always good, or always bad, is dangerous. Change can be either, and individuals who must decide for themselves whether it is good or bad for them. When we attempt to short circuit that decision making process, that is when we run into so called 'Change Management' problems.

(c) 2004 Peter de Jager - Peter is a Keynote Speaker, writer and consultant focusing on issues relating to Change Management and the Future. All Rights Reserved.

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