“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” - John C. Maxwell

The world changes. People change. Professions change. Everything…changes. Like the Maxwell quote above, change is inevitable. So why do we fight so hard against it? 

I remember early on in my administrative career I wanted to make a curriculum change for my primary grades that would put a heavy emphasis on phonemic awareness. Armed with data and research, I began meeting with grade levels, whole groups, and individual teachers. Everyone was so excited! Well, almost everyone.

I had one teacher who was resisting. She was bringing me her own research that was a little sketchy in terms of reliability. At least she was diving into the topic on her own so that felt like a win. Still, my frustration was growing as I saw the resistance getting stronger the closer we got to implementation.

It was around this time I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a mentor and colleague. Parts of his district were undergoing a reimagination of spaces. Truly amazing learning spaces were being developed and coming to life. It seemed that everyone involved was so excited. So I filled him in on my situation and asked, “How do I get 100 percent buy-in on something?”

Many years later, I see the foolishness of the question. It was the eagerness of being a new administrator. Or maybe that’s naivety, not eagerness. It was the same naivety that led me to answer this question in my interview for that position: What will you do when someone doesn’t like you? My answer: I cannot imagine someone not liking me; especially if all of my decisions are in the best interest of the students. It’s a good answer. It’s wishful thinking. It’s also wholly inaccurate.

The answer I was given was that I can’t expect buy-in from everyone. He told me there is always that 10 percent who will be resistant to change. Sometimes it is for the sole reason that they do not want to admit the change is for the better. Or that it is an easy and minor change that will produce huge results. Some just prefer the state of obstinate.

I should point out that 10 percent is more of an arbitrary number. That was just the advice I was given. If I’m making a change that just impacts four teachers and one is resistant, well then my number is 25 percent. I want to point that out before we get caught up on the nuances of percentages. For the sake of this post, I am keeping with the 90/10 jargon.

He went on to say that he doesn’t focus on this 10 percent. He doesn’t waste his energy and time trying to bring them along when they’re convinced the best place to be is right where they are. He closed the conversation by pointing out everyone who makes up the other population. The larger group who fuels excitement into the change.

It makes sense, really. You’ve got 90 percent helping you move and steer the vehicle of change. Focusing too much on the 10 percent will create pull or drag to our change vehicle. Their sole purpose of resistance is to throw a parachute to catch wind and slow us down. We don’t want to cut them loose, but we want to keep enough momentum to prevent their parachute from opening.

My trusted advisor wasn’t saying cut the ropes and let the 10 percent fall. He was simply saying that with all concentrated efforts on the 90 percent, you can focus on whatever is being implemented. Making sure the resources are there for those who are committed to whatever change is happening. I decided to give it a try.

I went into our curriculum change with the 90/10 mentality. If the 90 percent felt they needed more professional development, I got them that. More release time to map out the curriculum and how it would fit with schedules and other programs? Absolutely. 

I also remained available to the 10 percent. We continued talks together, sharing research and data to back why the change was necessary (or not). I did not want to discredit the person’s thoughts and beliefs. That wouldn’t be fair. And I think that is where we often go wrong.

I think a lot of times we see laggards as nuisances. Their obstinance is a crimp to our efforts to make change. We have to ask ourselves, perhaps their obstinance is a product of some other insecurity, need, or want? 

Think of a baby for a second. No, not the 10 percent. I’m talking about an actual baby, an infant or even a toddler if you will. Colicky babies aside, most of the time they are not crying because they know you, the caretaker, are at your wit’s end. They are crying to communicate a need or desire of theirs. The same can apply for the 10 percent. They just aren’t going to cry (well, some might; that’s another blog post though).

Humans have some of the most complex emotions. Most of the time we manage them quite poorly. We express our dissatisfaction, needs, or wants in the most improper way. To them it is perfectly clear what it is they are saying without saying. To us, they look like a giant toddler adult throwing a tantrum.

A 10 percenter is going to use poor communication tactics to express their dissatisfaction. This includes berating new ideas, celebrating when an initiative falters, refusing to acknowledge inefficiencies of their own practice, refusing to ask questions or for help, being negative (and sometimes downright nasty) to those promoting change, and not being supportive to those who are making a valiant effort to adapt. What if these negative behaviors are really distress signals in disguise?

This is why we cannot cut the 10 percenters off completely. There is still the chance that someone wants to make changes but struggles with a sense of security. We need to be around to help them. We just need to make sure that in the process we are not devoting so much energy to people who have no intention to change. 

No matter where you are or what your role is in the change process, don’t let it be derailed by someone who identifies as a 10 percenter. I have never proposed and participated in change in which every single person was on board. If we wait for that day, we might as well just kiss all change goodbye. 

Focus on the 90 percenters that want to see practices updated and improved. Be available to everyone, but don’t let a web of negativity restrict what you’re trying to do. And be sure not to let the opinions of insignificant people slow you down.