Deflating Resistance to Change

Or a Quick Guide To Understanding Resistance and Moving Forward

It is very easy for managers and bosses to characterise the failure of their plans for change as being down to the resistance of truculent and short-sighted workers, after all resistance is a well known phenomenon and credible excuse for nothing changing… “It’s all their fault!” Obviously there can be situations where this is true, but it is probably more often down to the failure of bosses to take the time to understand what is behind this resistance and to plan for it and handle it appropriately.

People need a reason to change: and it is your job to give it to them! The default position for most people is I’ll carry on doing what I know and understand until I am given a good reason to change.

Let’s have a look at some of the common causes for resisting change:-

  • If they have previous bad experiences of change generically or if previous initiatives have been implemented poorly, or have lacked management conviction and real support, then cynicism is understandable and you will have to prove that this time it will be done right.
  • They may know something that you don’t know, which may, in fact, make their resistance not only understandable but even correct.
  • People who are happy with the status quo will fight to protect it.
  • If they can see no clear path between their current state and the new position then they can’t begin to move forwards
  • If they don’t believe they have the necessary skills to be successful in the new order or are heavily invested in the current order then again they will resist.
  • They need to have clear and credible role models of the new behaviours.
  • They need to understand why the change is in their interests. Too many people make the mistake of telling why the company needs this, that and the other, but fail to make the link as to how these things benefit the individuals. Your employees are bright people (that is why you hired them!) and usually are quite quick to work out if they are going to be winners or losers from any proposed change and, by and large, turkeys don’t vote for Xmas!

“To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Sun Tzu

Of course there are plenty of other causes and, in the real world, there is often a ‘fruit salad’ made up of any number of these and different people have different reasons. However, if you approach this right, you can be successful in navigating these croppy waters.

You will have heard people talk about ‘overcoming resistance’; I would suggest this is fundamentally the wrong approach. In order to overcome something you have to fight it and that which we resist, persists. What you need to do is to weaken it from within; to remove the causes for their resistance.

The first thing you need to do is to understand what is behind it, and to do this you have to communicate, and more specifically, listen. You then need to respond appropriately, in such a way as to show that you have listened, learnt and understood them. People will follow leaders who keep them safe. “If you don’t understand my fears, how can you protect me from them?”

The key to successful change programs is to understand the W.I.F.M. factor [What Is in it For Me?] Every change will alter the balance of winners and losers in the corporate game. You need to ensure that no key groups or parties are going to lose as a result of your plans. Or at least, if loss is inevitable, that your plan is their best hope of minimising their losses. This is not as simple as money, although many do use this as their key means of keeping score in the game. It can involve et al.:-

  • Status
  • Prospects
  • Interest in the particular work area
  • The people they are working with
  • Geography

You have to paint a sufficiently clear and compelling vision so that they are encouraged to move towards it; and for those who are differently motivated, also build a burning platform to compel them forwards. These plans need to be realistic, and expressed in language that means something to them, and not just corporate gobbledygook.

If you think about how animals behave, you will realise that they follow the one most likely to keep them safe, and that animal goes first. As a leader, you really need to be leading from the front and modelling the new behaviours, and not insulating yourself from the fall-out or risk.

Nelson Mandela said “You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” Once it is safe, or the end is in sight, he said “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur”

These are frightening times, and an intelligent person should be scared. If you don’t deal with people’s fears properly then your program is doomed from the start. Don’t deny or belittle them, just show that your plan takes them into consideration and has addressed them in the best possible way.

Start by putting yourself in their position and honestly ask yourself “How would this make me feel?”

With empathy, good communication, effective planning and praise & reward there is no reason for your plan to fail… Good Luck!


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