Educational Leadership, Change, and the Politics of Resistance
Educational leaders are pivotal players in change and reform activities. However, despite the proliferation of literature on change management, most major change efforts disappoint. As Grey (2005, p. 97) argues, “[t]he most striking thing about change is that it almost always fails.” Obstacles, setbacks, and resistance are the norm.
To begin, it is important to distinguish between first- and second-order change processes (Watzlawick et al. 1974). First-order change concerns modifying or adjusting existing practice to improve effectiveness without consequential alterations to the educational institution or its work. Second-order change, however, involves systematic organizational restructuring and renewal, incurring fundamental or radical departures from usual practice. Educational institutions easily manage most first-order change initiatives which occur frequently, but second-order change is often problematic. Change is about improvement, solving problems, and confronting challenging issues, but the greater the change required, the greater the levels of resistance with concomitant impacts on productivity, work satisfaction, and loyalty.
Resistance to Change
The notion of “resistance” is a common theme in research about change. “Resistance” refers to social actors embedded in opposing power relationships wanting to challenge, disrupt, and/or overturn organizational decisions, discourses and/or power relations, and the social norms through which they are maintained. “Resistance” is usually described in negative terms, referring to oppositional responses (actions and nonaction), such as ill will, resentment, defensiveness, or confrontation.
Evans (1996) argues that it is human nature to oppose change unless individuals are involved in its creation. Major change requires people to give up feelings of comfort, long-held values or beliefs, and established routines. It entails new thinking, extra time, and effort; hence those affected try to retain comfort and quell confusion by practicing caution, constraint, and subversion, thus protecting the status quo. Abelson (1995) adds that individuals are defined by their strongest beliefs, so when major change challenges long-held attitudes, values, or assumptions, it becomes a threat to identity, making resistance inevitable. Machiavelli (1998) famously maintained that everyone is motivated by self-interest, so reform perceived as being personally disadvantageous presents itself as a risk to be contested. And while coercion heightens resistance, even the most reasonable and necessary change efforts are often met with resistance.
Blase (1991) describes resistance to change as a micropolitical activity that is always present but which intensifies during periods of major change, making change efforts more complex and messy. Defining micropolitics as “the use of formal and informal power by individuals and groups to achieve their goals in organizations” (Blase 1991, p. 11), micropolitical structures and activities involve both convergent and divergent processes (those that enable and distract from achieving change). Resistance encapsulates the latter. Change evokes micropolitical defensiveness because it shifts power arrangements and can highlight inconsistencies and inadequacies associated with past behaviors or performance.
Rogers’ (1995) work on the diffusion of innovation presents a bell curve of change adoption responses (from “laggards” to early adopters). Rogers cites homophilous systems (such as educational institutions) as those where change is most likely to be met with skepticism, suspicion, and resistance. In these situations, individuals from similar backgrounds achieve cultural convergence through their adherence to norms and values, and resist changes perceived to upset these arrangements and assumptions. Rogers has his critics, however, who point to problems with post facto definitions and suggestions that individuals (or organizations) fall into one particular change adoption category regardless of different change contexts and situations.
The “grief cycle” (Kubler-Ross 1969) is commonly used to describe change resilience, inferring that individuals experiencing major change undergo similar emotional phases as those who have lost a loved one: denial (disbelief), anger (change is unnecessary), bargaining (attempting to alter activities to suit preferred outcomes), anxiety, sadness, disorientation (insecurity), depression (despair), and finally acceptance, action, and going along with the change.
Resistance can stem from ideological, psychological, sociological, or logical factors. Ideological resistance can be the result of opposition to the political positioning or values underpinning education policy or strategy. Psychological resistance can be the result of personal emotional associations, for example, educational leaders may perceive barriers in communications with those harboring negative views about leadership or leaders (where other factors such as gender or race also play a part). Sociological resistance may result from deep-rooted institutional or community beliefs and coalitions. Resistance can also be based on criticisms of the rationale for change or the logic behind change processes being introduced (such as a lack of time or consultation).
All forms of resistance are political and influence the extent and nature of micropolitical activity within the educational institution and are often justified as professionalism (Blase 1991; Sarason 1990). However, while people can oppose change on many grounds, some may not be against change per se, but oppose the way change leaders go about it. Others still may be ambivalent about change, which can be construed as resistance.
Criticisms about the notion of “resistance to change” are based on the implicit hegemonic, hierarchically biased assumptions associated with the term: inherent connotations of virtuous, holistic, visionary educational leaders advocating change in contention with myopic and self-interested opponents who disrupt the achievement of strategic goals. Critics argue that change resistance can derive from various intentions and motivations, not all of which are “bad.”
A further criticism is that the failure to probe the roots of resistance may be a result of institutional “undiscussables” – a term used by Argyris (1980). Undiscussables are topics that are too uncomfortable for open conversation with social actors being reluctant to raise “risky and threatening issues, especially if these issues question underlying organizational assumptions and policies” (Argyris 1980, p. 205) or reflect badly on leaders. Undiscussables promote conformity while skewing data and subsequent change efforts.
“Resistance” to change is acknowledged as a predictable political phenomenon in educational leadership and a worthy focus of research in this field. To date, however, there is little research available focusing on educational leaders’ own resistance to change.
Why Educational Institutions Are Resilient to Change
It is human nature to resist change, unless implementers are involved in its creation (Evans 1996). Individuals are comfortable with the way things are; they are familiar with the way things work; they have established routines; and organizational cultures operate to maintain the status quo. Initiating change requires people to give up something – feelings of comfort, long-held values or beliefs, or ways of working. The change may entail encountering a different environment or new collaborations or reduced budgets – in extreme cases people may lose their jobs. Whatever, there will be some break from the past, new effort and thinking required, and extra time needed to implement the new pursuit. Uncertainty is never welcomed – it is easier to remain the same.
While change is difficult in all organizations, there are a number of barriers that are particular to the field of education that make major change especially difficult. Some relate to the nature of teachers’ work. Teachers’ work is complex, demanding, and requiring untold interactions each day and attention to the varied needs of large numbers of students, many of whom have learning or social difficulties. Schools have never served such diverse student populations. With current expectations that no student can fail, teachers are expected to tailor courses and pedagogy to individual needs to ensure optimal learning for every student. Some argue that students are becoming more challenging and can be harder to motivate, with teachers having to perform well in order to grasp and retain students’ attention and cooperation to ensure learning engagement (see, e.g., Evans 1996). Curriculum expectations are constantly changing and expanding. On top are the daily, unexpected requests, complaints, demands, and queries from students, parents, and others. Hence, the quotidian of educational life is messy, busy, and exhausting and stakeholders are many. Time for prolonged planning, reflection, or problem solving is always lacking.
Educational institutions are also expected to enact mandatory policy change agendas that are extrinsic to internal priorities, which add to workload and steal time. The technical-rational-structural approach often adopted by education bureaucracies further exacerbates problems about change. Change is ongoing and uncertain and time is pressured, but imposed directives regularly ignore this fact. Top-down mandatory change often assumes a straightforward, logical, predictable implementation with prescriptive timelines and procedures, thereby failing to grapple with the complexity and dynamism of educational life. An unintended consequence is it diverts efforts from teaching and learning.
Another salient factor is that practitioners are rarely involved in policy or change agenda formulation. They are acted upon – they are not cosponsors of change – and are often portrayed as a part of the problem rather than as the solution to educational problems.
For many reasons it is common for older individuals to be more cynical and resistant to change (Evans 1996; Grey 2005). This is understandable since life often becomes more, not less, complicated with aging: family responsibilities increase (with pressures from children and aging parents), financial commitments present restraints, personal health issues may emerge, and eventual retirement plans must be made. Older staff can also be more confident, vocal, and visible dissenters, and seeing it is in their interests to maintain the status quo.
It is also a history of failed reforms that makes some experienced practitioners very cynical and resistant to change. Long-standing staff members are custodians of stories about the unintended, unanticipated, negative consequences or side effects of change. Educational leaders initiating change are often told that “this is the way we do things here” or that “we tried that once before and it didn’t work.” And in terms of the latter comment – in most cases this would be accurate.
While issues of low morale and disengagement may emerge from the nature of teachers’ work, these are not helped by regular media attacks from politicians and public commentators. Politicians often cite purported problems to gain legitimacy for new reforms and restructurings, which erodes public confidence in education even further. In addition, parents are more demanding, placing increasing responsibility on educational institutions as increasingly they are spending less time with their children (Evans 1996). These conditions are hardly conducive to inspiring change and innovation. Reform requires effort in an atmosphere of trust.
Governments’ responses to global forces to ensure national economic competitiveness can release “dark” micro repercussions. Educational leaders cite ongoing external interventions; intensified workloads; insufficient resources; the timing, nature, volume, and disruption of externally imposed initiatives; and union objection as hindrances to change that exacerbate resistance and antagonism (Gronn 2009). Further exacerbating factors include a lack of agreement about policy or direction, increasing stress and burnout, widespread disenchantment and disengagement, rapidly changing student populations, a lack of collaboration in education policy making, and insufficient professional learning, preparation, and induction for principals focused on change, micropolitics, and resistance (Evans 1996; Gronn 2009).
Experiences of Educational Leaders
In education, resistance to change can come from within or outside the educational institution. Overwhelmingly, however, educational leaders view resistance as a negative, disruptive phenomenon stemming from self-interest, with perceptions being highly influenced by the behaviors exhibited by resistors. Resistance to change evokes differing responses among the people involved and can be active or passive and severe or less interfering. Specific behaviors include vandalism or violence, professional sabotage, disrespectful or discourteous conduct, clandestine caucusing or social exclusion, formal complaints, the withholding of information, rumor mongering, slander, and blackmail. Resistance behaviors can have institutional effects such as an increase in resignations or transfers, lowered productivity, increased absenteeism, and a general sullying of the workplace culture.
Resistance is exacerbated when factionalism and divisions appear within a group where there is more at stake for individuals holding strong views one way or another and when a sense of common purpose or collective vision evaporates. Crucial throughout major change is cohesive leadership – disloyalty or disunity makes the change process even more difficult. Educational leaders may, however, harbor their own opposition to change imperatives such as policy interventions or accountability procedures. Hence compliance is a conscious agential act – one that may not stem from honesty or integrity, whereas resistance may (reinforcing the view that not all resistance acts are unjustified).
A leader’s tenure within an educational institution can influence the nature and extent of change resistance, with the early stages of tenure in a new institution being the time when the most robust forms of resistance are likely to be experienced. Leaders with long-standing tenure appear to experience fewer examples of aggressive resistance the longer their tenure. This indicates that education communities may experience difficulty in coming to terms with a new leader, new ideas, and unfamiliar modus operandi, whereas over time, a leader’s views and processes become known, expected, and accepted. The initial years of a leaders’ tenure are when the most radical reforms are likely to be undertaken (through necessity or choice) which may also explain this phenomenon. Further, educational leaders with long experience report more confidence in their position, major change processes, and outcomes. Overall, however, resistance to second-order change appears to be part of the change territory in education.
A culture of complaint is seen to have superseded an era of greater compliance in education and is viewed as an outcome of consumer choice, competitive individualism over collectivism, political and media appeals to students and parents as consumers of education, and an emphasis on market forces emphasizing responsiveness to consumer power. With a greater range of interested parties and higher community expectations, legal or procedural rights are more likely to be pursued to procure desired outcomes, with complainants being more convinced of the effectiveness of these strategies.
Protestors increasingly seek restitution through power brokers such as boards/ councils, external supervisors or regulators, or unions. Others may seek to disrupt support networks within internal institutional leadership. Formalized resistance strategies increase the workload of educational leaders through meetings, negotiations, deputations, and formal documentation requirements, having to ensure procedural compliance or attend reconciliation or court appearances. The processes are stressful but effective in delaying or allaying mooted changes. While stakeholders and staff members can express a range of emotions, educational leaders feel constrained to act confidentially, diplomatically, and courteously. Educational leaders have to be adept at appearance management, hiding true feelings to present a steady, “bulletproof” persona, which is not always easy.
Opponents of change have considerable formal means of resistance available to them – means enhanced through localized knowledge, cultural resources, and associations. When change fails, resistance tactics have proven worthwhile.
Addressing Change Resistance
Articulating and communicating a clear rationale for major change based on transparent information
Focusing the rationale for change on benefits for students
Involving and negotiating with stakeholders who will be most affected by the change in the development of common understandings, goals, and processes
Being respectful of past practices
Identifying and co-opting key people to lead aspects of the change activities and work with others through change processes
Negotiating expectations – being transparent about what is going to happen, when, and how
Developing role statements, responsibilities, and realistic timelines
Widely communicating and reporting progress toward goals through formal and informal means
Providing necessary professional learning and other resources
Inducting newcomers to the change process
Providing encouragement and support, with change leaders being personally available and involved
Encouraging discussion about difficulties and devising solutions collectively
Maintaining a strong focus on professional learning – growing talents, interests, skills, and knowledge, while fostering mentoring and coaching activities
Opposition and resistance are to be expected in major educational change, with emotionality often overriding rationality. Resistance is exercised in myriad overt and covert ways, and educational leaders cannot underestimate how difficult change is to manage, or how antagonistic some people will be. And no matter how well planned, change can have unforeseen repercussions (positive and negative), which may incur further upset. Power struggles, political intrigue, ideological difference, and the maneuvering of knowledge and personal agendas make for micropolitical messiness in school life and thwart change efforts (Sarason 1990). Resistance tactics are deployed because they often have the desired effect.
Resistance must be anticipated and acted upon. Educational leaders require political astuteness to lead and manage change successfully, yet many researchers reveal the lack of essential knowledge and skills of school leaders as the cause of change failure (Blase 2005; Evans 1996). As governments place more emphasis on measurable performance outcomes, leading and managing change will become even more important for educational leaders, with concomitant implications for their selection, appraisal, and longevity in the job. As Buchanan and Badham (2008, p. 18) argue, “the change agent who is not politically skilled will fail.”
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