CHANGE Q&A: How can I overcome resistance to change in an organization-wide accessibility project?
This article was developed as part of
The Accessibility Switchboard Project
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
June 2018, Version 1.0
Creative Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0
How can I overcome resistance to change in an organization-wide accessibility project?
Make it part of the staff’s ‘enlightened self interest’. In progress reviews, keep returning to the staff’s ‘self interest’.
In-Depth answer: How can I overcome resistance to change in an organization-wide accessibility project?
Rethinking and rebranding the ‘accessibility program office’
Culture = Words + Actions
‘Organizational culture’ is a short-hand term for what people say and what they do at work. In many situations, accessibility program staff will be either (a) starting out as a brand new entity; or (b) seeking to revamp their program and make it organization-wide. In both a and b, what people across the organization have been doing and saying up to now needs to change.
In the past, accessibility programs were commonly either non-existent, or they have been siloed and practiced (ineffectively) on a piecemeal basis. For example, a company might have responded to an external request, and then made their public-facing website accessible, but that was the full extent of the work. Another commonly observed arrangement for organizations has had all of the accessibility work of the company (technology issues, human resource issues, facilities issues, etc.) be the single hub of responsibility and expertise. This might be the side job of one person, the job of a single expert, or a small team. The accessibility program office in this type of scenario usually finds it difficult to have a proactive impact on the regular operations of the organization. Instead, they may find themselves trapped in a reactionary state, putting out the proverbial ‘fires’ as they arise. Siloed accessibility programs that aren’t integrated with mainstream development are still, unfortunately, quite common. In such cases, what people (across the company) say and do in terms of accessibility is not much, while the accessibility program office tries to say and do what they can, but somewhat as a voice in the wilderness.
The more up-to-date prevailing advice from the accessibility field (see related sections of the Switchboard, below) is to have each organizational unit/department working on their own accessibility issues, and think of the accessibility program office as a source of expertise to help with the provision of advice and support as needed, and to manage and report on the accessibility efforts across the company as a whole. The accessibility program office that directly reports to an executive office (e.g., CEO, CIO, of CTO) will be seen as an arm of (and extension of the authority of) that executive office. In this arrangement, the executives and their accessibility officers are keen to hear what people throughout the company say and do around accessibility.
In this article on Change and our related article on Practice we assume that the decision has already been made by executive sponsors to implement an organization-wide accessibility program. This decision may have followed activities such as an assessment of why to tackle accessibility, financial investment analyses, and detailed organization-wide measurements of current accessibility maturity levels across departments. The results of this work and the resulting decisions may have already been enshrined, or are in the process of being enshrined in policy. In this article, we focus on dealing with inevitable reactions to organizational change. For the other preceding activities, see the related sections of the Switchboard, below.
Establish who’s the change agent (pssst… it’s not you)
By ‘you’ we mean the accessibility program office staff. Even if you have been a catalyst for change, by bringing accessibility issues to the attention of peers and executives, it is important to recognize that the change agent must be an authority outside of your office, an executive sponsor higher up in the organization. The reason is that if there are any complaints arising from individuals who are resisting change, these complaints will go up the hierarchy. They might complain to you, but their real desire will be to seek a friendly figure higher up who will absolve them of the requested responsibility to work on their own accessibility problems. If they go to a higher level and are greeted with a consistent message that accessibility is an important and necessary part of what employees do (and say), that carries all the weight that is needed. (This is why the television show ‘Undercover Boss’ was so popular, because so often the values of the organization weren’t represented by the practice of the company. See also our articles on Allocation and Practice.)
Note: When implemented successfully, change becomes a shared responsibility of all staff, but in the final analysis, change happens at the individual level (each person has to want to change themselves.) However, the change agent can be an individual.
Eliminate the ability to make excuses
In the Change Management literature, one of the most influential models for understanding peoples’ reactions to change is actually based in grief research. In the Kübler-Ross’s model there are five stages of grief: (1) Denial; (2) Anger; (3) Bargaining; (4) Depression; and (5) Acceptance. It is easy to see how this translates to the workplace and the ‘death’ of the old, accepted ways of doing things, and the transition to a new state of being that you can’t change (i.e., you can’t bring back a deceased loved-one):
Knowing that those affected might go through these stages can help you plan for and introduce tactics to lessen or even eliminate negative impacts. The goal though, is to get to the Acceptance stage as quickly as possible, with all sides being in agreement, and nobody making bargaining-type denials, angry statements, or bargaining for avoidance of change. So, how do we get to Acceptance?
“Substantive change is created by affecting the belief systems of key people”
—Alan Weiss, Process Consulting, 2002, p.72
The above quote from Weiss is reinforced in an analysis of the effectiveness of approaches to motivate organizational change with respect to accessibility:
Inspiration and enlightenment work on peoples’ belief systems. The others work on their actions, but don’t necessarily change their minds. There are plenty of inspiring messages from which to create a case for addressing accessibility (as we have tried to provide with Switchboard articles). As stated above, we are assuming in this article that the case has already been made and that the organizational goals already stated. For adopting a more inclusive organizational culture, in practice, the remainder of the pyramid is still relevant. Someone could be inspired, but not required to change. With competing priorities they may choose to work on aesthetics rather than accessibility on their interfaces. If they get rewarded for their aesthetics and there are no consequences (punishment) for making inaccessible interfaces, then what use was the inspirational speech?
For the longest time, one of the missing pieces for the accessibility field was an implementation manual for executives. The CEO who herself was inspired by an accessibility event, or who has experienced disability in her own family, may have gone to her staff and demanded accessibility improvements in the products and services they sell. At a review meeting six months later, the CEO’s request for an update might be met with a barrage of excuses: “We looked at that, and it was too difficult in our current cycle. Perhaps next time?”; “I asked Jean-Claude to go on an accessibility course, but he had a family emergency, so we had to drop that requirement.”; et cetera.
It is self-evident that if you have an organizational culture in which people can make excuses, then people will make excuses. If you have a culture in which accessibility is part of everyone’s shared responsibility, with the appropriate resources, and team and individual performance is measured on accessibility, then you have a culture where excuses are not regarded as an option. If you have such a culture where excuses are tolerated then you may need to revisit your plans:
- Do you need a stronger message?
- Is more training needed?
- Are other incentives needed?
- Are additional resources needed?
The questions and answers will, of course, vary on a case-by-case basis. However, there is one factor that is vital to always return to when examining resistance to change…
Always return to ‘Rational self-interest’
“People change through only three factors, and two of them don’t work:
1. Power [doesn’t work..]
2. Normative peer pressure [doesn’t work..]
3. Rational self-interest [works..]”
—Alan Weiss, Process Consulting, 2002, p.80
Rational self-interest (a.k.a. ‘Enlightened self-interest’) goes back to the point that the individual must want to change. The individual must regard the change as in their best interest. The intrinsic choice is a better motivator than an external force.
However, we also need to consider the self-interest of teams. In most programs, organizational change is the result of teamwork. If the team succeeds or fails as a group, then individuals are more likely to band together, and help each other, to meet their team self-interest by affecting individual self-interest.
Finally, gaining team self-interest is greatly facilitated by having team representation and involvement in designing the needed changes to meet any new accessibility goals.
The organizational accessibility implementation manual for executives already exists. It’s already written up in the organizational change and organizational behavior literature. The lessons from these areas just need to be extrapolated and re-applied: For improved efficiency and productivity, substitute with terms like improved accessibility and inclusive practices.
Organizational Change and Accessibility, Overcoming the Resistance is a webinar by Chris Law. The webinar is intended to help people plan before they encounter resistance, and turn accessibility into an ‘enlightened self-interest’ of all stakeholders. The webinar was produced by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP)..
A final note on Change Management
Organizational Change Management is a discipline unto itself. The concepts we discuss in this article are consistent with several of the widely-accepted approaches to change management, but we can’t comprehensively cover the frameworks that typical change management methodologies provide. We recommend aligning your efforts with a person or a team familiar with Change Management at your organization, and/or seeking out additional training resources on Change Management.
Process Consulting: How to Launch, Implement, and Conclude Successful Consulting Projects is a book by Alan Weiss. The text is targeted at consultants as a guide to helping them help others in their implementation of change. The book is useful for anyone implementing a new program in an organization, addressing possible pitfalls and tackling barriers that may arise in the course of bringing new ideas and ways of working into a company.
About this article
This article is published as part of The Accessibility Switchboard Project, an initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute with support from the members of the Accessibility Switchboard Project Community Of Practice, and from the Maryland Department of Disabilities.
The Accessibility Switchboard Project. CHANGE Q&A: How can I overcome resistance to change in an organization-wide accessibility project? June 2018, Version 1.0. National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: https://accessibilityswitchboard.org/
Feedback, additions and updates
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‘Forest pathologist Betsy Goodrich using a Resistograph to measure the amount of sound rind in an old growth Douglas-fir’ by Connie Mehmel. Public Domain.
‘WebAIM’s Hierarchy for Motivating Accessibility Change’ by Jared Smith / WebAIM. Used with permission.