Leading Through Change

Mobile digital terminals (MDTs), a form of laptop computers, were installed in our patrol cars about 20 years ago. There was quite a bit of excitement about being able to access databases (e.g., stolen vehicle files) directly and immediately, instead of verbally over the phone. But not all officers greeted the dramatic change in communication with enthusiasm and acceptance. We discovered that an officer, who didn’t feel capable of using the new device, had actually purposely put one damaged MDT out of commission with a nightstick—change can be threatening and uncomfortable.

Officers have experienced massive technological change during the last two decades. Our communication systems have changed. Our use of fingerprints has changed from the “Henry” system to a computerized automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS). We now have access to computerized databases through wireless devices in the field. The use of DNA and other forensic comparisons have revolutionized crime-scene investigations. Changes in the law have also brought many requirements and/or restrictions that have influenced our tactics and procedures.

Some changes, however, are welcome. The availability of a small communication device during a foot pursuit is a good thing. On the other hand, a cleverly edited video depicting the use of force by officers can paint a distorted picture of the totality of what actually occurred.

Leaders need to understand change. Above all, we must realize that most of us have some natural resistance to change. Once we understand the reasons for resistance to change, we’re better equipped to deal with it and help our followers through the transformation.

The following are some of the more common reasons we naturally resist change.

We believe the change is unnecessary: “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” is a common response to a proposed change. When the need for a change isn’t

successfully demonstrated, the natural reaction is to resist it. People are more likely to accept a change when the leader justifies it. This can run the full gamut from demonstrating the benefits of the new way, to a lawful response to a non-negotiable mandate.

There’s added work: Change also requires some effort to make it happen. Implementing a change in technology, strategy or methodology requires research, planning and just plain hard work. Most of us avoid added effort or struggle that may initially seem unnecessary. It’s just human nature to prefer the easiest or simplest way to do things. In this case, the leader must convince the followers that some initial added effort is worth the long-term results that will eventually make them more efficient or their tasks easier to accomplish.

Lack of skills: Closely related to the “added effort” reason for resisting change is the “lack of skills” reason. New methods or technology usually require a new set of skills. If an individual has never mastered typing, the use of a computer is a difficult adaptation. Some community-based policing applications require public speaking skills. Traditional police training may not include a module on public speaking. A leader can reduce this type of resistance by providing appropriate training, assistance and encouragement during the skill development process. Granting rewards or special recognition for acquiring new skills is also effective.

Fear: There’s a natural fear of the unknown, and most change involves some unknown factors. How will the new system work in real life? What happens when the new computer system crashes? There’s also the fear of failure. It’s natural for people to wonder if they’ll achieve the same level of success under the new system that they enjoy under the present system. To reduce fear during a change process, the leader must make the unknown known by providing as much information as possible about the new system. Also, the leader should declare a strong commitment to assisting those involved in the change to achieve success.

Tradition: “We’ve always done it this way,” is a natural reaction to the introduction of a new method. Tradition is an important component of culture and shouldn’t be completely abandoned without due consideration. However, establishing a new and better tradition can be positive.  In this case, the leader must illustrate the benefits of adopting a new tradition.

Selfish interests: Personal or vested interests can be a powerful reason for resisting change. Under the present organization, an individual may have authority over a larger group of people or resources than they would have after the proposed reorganization. The new system also may be doing away with a system created by the person resisting the change. Either way, it’s painful to see one’s creation thrown on the trash heap of the past. The definition of a team is “a group of people who subordinate their personal interests to the welfare of the group.” Therefore, the leader must focus on a team spirit approach.

Poor leadership: Implementing a significant change requires trust in leadership. When there’s a lack of respect for a leader, resistance to change can be profound. Respect for an individual or group of individuals takes place within the matrix of ongoing relationships. Good character traits of those in leadership are the key ingredients.

One of the few things we can be certain about is the presence of change. Nothing remains absolutely static or unchanged. The second law of thermodynamics, entropy, tells us that everything is in a constant state of change. Change may be unwelcome, but it’s always there in some degree. The only real question is: Do we navigate through change successfully, or do we fail? On point.


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