How can we deal with people who resist change? How can we get more people to participate in a new approach to safety management? These are the questions I'm asked most frequently at our training seminars and workshops on safety management.

First, let's face the fact that change is unpleasant for many people, and they are apt to react with resistance. Change often threatens our "comfort zones"-those predictable daily routines we like to control. Change brings with it some degree of uncertainty, and it can leave us with less control over a situation. Really, it takes a secure person, a leader, to try something new. A certain kind of risk- taking is needed to lead change, and some people want no part of exploring the unknown.

So we need leaders to set the right examples. We've all been in unfamiliar situations where we're not sure how to act; we feel awkward and uncomfortable. We look for someone to give us direction, to help increase our sense of control in the situation. Then it's easier to adjust. We might even help others deal with the change. But without leaders, and adequate tools to cope with change, we might retreat-withdraw from the situation- or even actively resist the change.

It seems so obvious: To overcome resistance we need to teach people tools or skills to handle change, and support those leaders who set the right examples for others to follow. But in reality, this doesn't always happen. Instead, managers too often try to identify and discipline resisters.

Let's try to better understand this concept of resistance by exploring one of the classic unfamiliar situations thrust upon many of us-that first school dance. Remember it? For me, it was a high school homecoming dance in 1957.

If you were anything like me, you were a bit nervous about this change in your social world. You might have been prepared for it-family, friends and teachers probably told you what to expect; maybe you even had dance lessons. But that didn't make it any easier to participate.

Not for me, anyway. I practiced how to ask a girl to dance. I took four two-hour dance lessons at an "Arthur Murray Dance Studio." I felt ready to dance, but I never did the entire evening. I didn't feel too awkward, though, because there were so many others not dancing. You remember-the boys stood on one side of the gym and the girls on the other.

Some kids seemed to be having a great time. They danced almost every number, and tried to lure others out on the floor. Not me. I hung back with the other nonparticipants.

But at least I was in the dance hall. Some students never entered the building. They stood around in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes and talking. These were the resisters. Some were active resisters. They'd persuade others to hop in their car, try some beer, smoke, fool around, or cruise the town.

Levels of participation

There are essentially five ways of reacting to change-call them levels of participation-and they were all on display at the dance. First, there are the true leaders who get totally involved. They are innovators. At the dance, they were the teenagers on the floor for almost every song. They didn't necessarily know what they were doing when it came to dancing, but they got out there and tried. They took a risk, and benefited from it. By the end of the night they had the most fun. A dance might start with only a few of these "risk takers," but they usually lead a number of people to get involved as the night wears on.

Some people want to change, but need direction and support. They're motivated, but they need models, or leaders. At the dance, these were the kids who hung back at first. With a little encouragement they danced a few numbers. By the end of the evening you couldn't get them off the dance floor. They were now totally involved.

Most of us are at the third level of participation. We're ready to get involved, but we'll stay in our comfort zones until we're directed and motivated to participate. It might look like we're resisting change, but not really. We just aren't sure what to do. We need self-confidence that we can handle the change, and genuine support when we try to participate.

The boys and girls who lined each side of the gym came with some expectation to dance. They stood around attempting to muster enough confidence to take the plunge. Sometimes, one of the totally involved leaders would succeed in getting a "neutral participant" out on the dance floor. Once in a while, just getting started or "breaking the ice" was enough to turn a passive observer into an active participant.

Types of resistance

The final two levels of involvement are passive and active resistance. Passive resisters perceive change as a problem. They complain a lot; they're critical and untrusting of something new imposed on them. They seem to see only the negative side of a new program, policy, or challenge.

Passive resistance is marked by grumbling and whining. But it usually stops when participation in a new process is clearly enjoyed by the majority. Passive resisters are followers, and they'll do what they see most people doing.

These are the teenagers who came to the dance because everyone else would be there, but they felt so insecure they didn't enter the building. They looked for others hanging around outside, and critiqued the silly dancing going on inside.

Sometimes these nonparticipants ran into an active resister. These characters are few in number, but it doesn't take many of them to slow down a change process. Active resisters engage in what psychologists call "psychological reactance," a phenomenon most parents observe when their children reach the teens. Teenagers want to feel independent, and at times they go against their parents' directions-break the rules-to gain a personal sense of independence or self-control.

We all feel overly controlled at times, and perhaps react to regain independence or assert personal freedom. Sometimes our reaction is not thoughtful, caring, or safe. But active resisters feel the need to resist change, the status quo, or authority much of the time. This is partly because their behavior brings them special attention that rewards their resistance.

This is an important concept to understand. Active resisters stick out and attract attention. Nonparticipants use them to rationalize their own commitment to comfort zones. Managers in control of the workplace often hit them with discipline. But this can backfire. As I wrote in the April, 1994, issue of ISHN ("Discipline and Involvement Don't Mix"), top-down discipline should be used sparingly if the ultimate purpose is total participation in an improvement process.

This is because discipline builds resentment of the system among resisters, and makes it even less likely they will join the change process. For some individuals, disciplinary attention only fuels their burning desire to exert independence and resist control. They could become more vigorous in recruiting others to oppose change.

How were resistant teenagers brought inside the dance? The harsh warnings of the school principal shouting from the steps probably didn't work; neither did the one-on-one confrontation between one of the adult chaperones and the "leader of the pack." Whenever I saw a resister come inside, it was always the result of urging by another teenager. Peer pressure (or peer support) is still the most powerful motivator of human behavior.

Motivational lectures from a teacher, counselor, concerned parent, or outside consultant might make a temporary difference, but not over the long term. The best way to deal with resistance is usually to set up situations that allow for peer influence. This could mean management does nothing more than support the change process, and lets peer pressure or support occur naturally.

Power of peer influence

So how do you facilitate peer influence? The best way is through empowerment, but this is easier said than done. You can give people more responsibility, such as the challenge to lead others in a change process, but they must feel responsible. They need to have sufficient self-esteem ("I am valuable"), self-effectiveness ("I can do it"), and confidence that their leadership will have beneficial impact ("I am in control").

Some people already have enough self-esteem, self-effectiveness, and confidence to feel empowered ("I can make a difference"). Still, these folks may need some basic training in communication, social influence, and behavior management.

Others may lack one or more of the three "person states" needed to feel empowered. So in addition to social influence training, they need a support system to build up their sense of personal value, effectiveness, or control. There is no quick fix for this, but asking people to define policies and procedures and develop an action plan makes them feel important, improves self-esteem and confidence, and prepares them for the challenge to lead.

People must accept the position of change agent in order for peer influence to work. Certain individuals naturally rise to the occasion and welcome opportunities to lead; others may be committed to change but need some direction and encouragement from the natural leaders. Both of these groups need training and practice in behavior management and social influence strategies. Then management must give them direction and the opportunity to persuade all those folks standing on the sidelines, ready to leave their comfort zones following effective peer influence.

It's usually best to ignore the resisters. Don't give them too many opportunities to say "no." It's hard for them to participate after making a public showing of their opposition. So don't pressure these folks. Invite them to contribute whenever they feel ready to achieve success with those willing to try something new. When the majority buys in and eventually celebrates their accomplishments, resisters will choose to come on board. The key is for them to perceive that they chose to get involved, rather than being forced by a top-down mandate.

My teenage daughter's recent experience at her first high school homecoming dance enables me to use this analogy once more to make a final point. Karly was well prepared for the dance, but perhaps not for her first date.

After the football game, Karly was to meet her date at the dance. She arrived at the gym before him, and instead of waiting outside, she proceeded to get totally involved in the dance, heading out to the floor for just about every song with whoever was available, boy or girl. Karly was an innovator, a leader. She felt empowered enough to lure others onto the dance floor so they could join in the fun. When Karly's date finally arrived, he rushed up to her, led her off the dance floor, and admonished her for not waiting for him outside. Why should she have fun without him?

It's important to realize that even leaders need support. Those who benefit from a leader's inspiration or coaching should show their appreciation. Karly's date actually punished her for her initiative and total involvement. Fortunately, Karly had sufficient self-esteem, self-confidence, and available support from friends to ignore her date's reprimand. In fact, she went back to the dance floor and participated with the support group that had evolved before her date arrived. And she chose to make her first date with that boy her last. That empowerment was sure appreciated by her dad.