Overcoming Resistance to Change Within Choral Organizations

Tori Cook Sep 13, 2018

Learn more: volunteer management


Biologically and psychologically, we are all hard-wired to fear change. When someone has the audacity to seek change, our natural response is to become defensive and we actively resist. This is true in all aspects of life: home, work, and, yes, even with managing a chorus.

But ultimately, change can be a good thing. The world is always changing and nonprofits, like community choruses, need to adapt to their new environments in order to survive and thrive.

So how do we overcome this natural resistance to change and work together to make progress within our organizations? We'll explore why people are resistant to change, how an individual can open themselves up to change, and how to help someone else overcome their fear of change. 


Build Trust First

Choruses can proactively avoid a leadership team prone to resisting change by building an environment based on trust. When dealing with volunteer turnover, we face the interesting challenge of continuously building trust between new and returning volunteers. Here is some advice to both parties.


To new volunteers: Acknowledge that before you became a volunteer, there were many others before who had invested a great deal of time and energy (and likely some blood, sweat, and tears!) into running the organization. There will be a status quo and, inherently, you will be disrupting it. Realize that this may cause some subconscious discomfort and that this discomfort is a normal—and sometimes unavoidable—psychological reaction.

Before recommending change, it is incredibly important to first assess the existing environment. Get to know each of your fellow choral leaders and learn more about their personal passion projects, goals for the chorus, and the reasons they volunteer. Ask a lot of questions about the chorus operations with the intent to understand (not to fix). If you see something that you might want to change, talk to the chorus volunteer responsible for managing it to learn more. Remember, there may be perfectly valid reasons for the current setup and you may not even be the first person to want to change it!


To returning volunteers: Acknowledge that new ideas and perspectives can be beneficial for improving the organization. You should also get to know your fellow choral leaders and learn more about their personal passion projects, goals for the chorus, and the reasons they volunteer. When someone expresses interest in one of your passion projects or something in which you have invested time developing, help answer any questions they have and share why this project is so important to you. Try not to shoot down any new ideas. Instead, encourage new ideas and offer to stay engaged in any conversations about improving these systems.


Find the Root of Resistance

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In the event of inevitable resistance to a recommended change, the first step in resolving the tension is to identify the root of resistance. Here are just a few reasons why we resist:

  • Feeling defensive or not included in the conversation
  • Fear of failure/the unknown; not knowing whether it will have a positive impact
  • Easier to say no; too much effort or work involved
  • Not trusting the person recommending the change

To the person resisting change: Try to identify why you are feeling resistant and acknowledge it. Are you concerned about the workload? Are you feeling left out of the loop? Are you worried about the outcome? Communicate your feelings openly to the person recommending change.

To the person recommending change: It's okay to call out resistance. In a polite and professional way, ask the other party why they are feeling resistant. Listen to them fully and validate their fear and feelings.


Attack Defensiveness With Communication

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More often than we'd like to admit, resistance comes from a place of defensiveness. Open communication is the best way to tackle this together.

To the person resisting change: When someone wants to change something that you have personally invested time or energy into, becoming defensive is a natural response. First, try to identify whether you are, indeed, resisting something because you are feeling defensive; personal awareness is key. Next step, breathe! Take some time to stop, think, and breathe before you respond.

Recognize that most people are trying to do what they feel is right for the organization and organizations need new ideas to thrive. If you attack new ideas by being defensive, you can negatively impact the organization and discourage new volunteers from helping. Instead, communicate clearly to the other party that you may be feeling defensive. Show your support for their enthusiasm to bring new ideas to the table and lay out some of the reasons you are feeling uneasy.


To the person recommending change: Recognize that when you recommend change, you may be encroaching on another person's passion project. You can proactively avoid defensive feelings by first engaging the other party in an information gathering session. Ask them more about what they have worked on, how they plan to continue working on the project, and how they envision the future for the project. Validate their work by acknowledging how they have positively impacted the organization. Get a sense for how comfortable they might be with new ideas before directly recommending a change.

When someone does become defensive, the most important thing is to not become defensive in return. Defensiveness cannot beat defensiveness. Try to remember that their feelings are a natural psychological response and not a personal attack against you. Set aside time to discuss with the other party and offer them the opportunity to share their feelings. Simply listen with no judgments or criticism and try not to defend yourself. Ask them for a recommendation on how they would like to move forward on the project and see if, through communication, you can come to an agreement.


Plan for Positive Impact & Success

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Fear of the unknown and fear of failure can all be managed with careful planning.

To the person resisting change: When someone is recommending change, try not to get bogged down by worrying about logistics. Don't think about the budget, don't think about the means, simply think about the impact. Will the recommended change positively impact the organization? Answer this question first. If the answer in unequivocally "yes," then it's a lot easier to digest the budget, logistics, and means for getting there. Then, help the other party develop a plan for the project's success. If the answer is no or you are unsure, then it is reasonable to discuss why this is the case with the other party.

To the person recommending change: Lay out a proposal that clearly lists how the change will positively impact the organization. Define what success looks like and how you will report on it. Set up specific, measurable goals and develop a means for tracking metrics. After you have implemented a project, be sure to report back on your findings to the other party as a way to build trust.


Make the Work Manageable

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To the person resisting change: Determine your own availability and level of commitment you can make to the project or request. Clearly communicate these boundaries to the person requesting a change.

To the person recommending change: Listen to the other party to determine their level of commitment to the request. Based on this information, develop a sample project plan that clearly identifies the tasks, owners of each task, timeline for the project, and time commitment required from each person. Work together to refine the plan around their availability and even offer to find additional volunteers as needed.


Ultimately, when resistance looms large, look towards building trust, establishing two-way communication, and planning for success.

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Tori Cook

Tori Cook is the former Director of Sales & Marketing at Chorus Connection, an active board member of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, and a soprano with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. In a past life, she was the Music Director of the Harborlight Show Chorus and President of Chorus pro-Musica. When not making music, she daydreams about adopting a golden retriever puppy and scuba diving to exotic locations around the world.

Tori Cook