We’ve seen it too many times – resistance to change wreaks havoc on even the most thoughtfully managed projects, especially when that resistance is unexpected. Ignoring that resistance and not respecting and addressing it reduces the chances of a successful implementation.
If resistance isn’t expected - you’ll look uninformed, as if you’re out of touch with the workforce. If it’s not respected - you’ll look unsympathetic, as if you don’t care about the employee experience. If it’s not addressed - you’ll end up looking inexperienced when the project inevitably fails.
While none of the above are a good look, there is good news. When change management is done right, resistance can be overcome and flipped to your advantage. By taking the time upfront to win hearts and minds, stakeholder buy-in accelerates the right behaviors and makes change successful for everyone involved.
The simplest truth about change management is that it’s mostly about people. Why? Organizations don’t change; the individuals inside them do. When the “individual collective,” a.k.a. the workforce, believes in a purpose, aligns behind a goal, and puts skin in the game via buy-in, they will embrace the behaviors needed to accomplish change. Successful change management then becomes a measure of how quickly and easily we build belief, gain alignment, and empower stakeholders to bring a change to life.
Below, we unpack three steps for making resistance work for you as early as possible in your change management process. By expecting, respecting, and addressing it head-on, you can rebrand resistance into the buy-in you need for success.
As you approach the earliest planning phases of your project, proactively identify where resistance is most likely to emerge and plan for it.
Step 1: Expect it.
Louise Hay famously said, “Resistance is the first step to change.” We couldn’t agree more. How you handle this first step will make or break how change happens (or doesn’t) in your organization. As you approach the earliest planning phases of your project, proactively identify where resistance is most likely to emerge and plan for it.
Resistance will take on many personas and can come from any direction. For example, are the leaders who created the current workflows, org structures, or technology choices still here and will this change damage their credibility or (gasp) ego? Are there groups of employees disproportionately benefitting from current workflows or org structures? Are there groups that will automatically assume any change equals an increase in their workloads or a decrease in their flexibility? Finally, is there an opposing team, i.e., an alternative to this change, that had significant support but lost the business case? These are but a few examples of where the seeds of resistance may sprout.
Resistance from these types of groups will look different. Once identified, take steps to really understand their potential objections. Go on a fact-finding mission to articulate what their challenges are and how you’ll specifically address them. We can’t stress enough how important it is that you don’t skip objections where the final answer is just ‘not what they want to hear.’ Ignoring truths will always strengthen resistance (and resentment). If the reality of a change has some negative consequences, go the extra mile to understand those consequences well enough to offer positive recommendations for dealing with them.
Consider asking the most likely resistors to weigh in early with their fears, concerns, and needs so that you understand what they feel they are giving up.
Step 2: Respect it.
The next step in overcoming resistance is understanding and respecting why it exists. This one is pretty simple. Humans find comfort in what we know and it’s in our nature to resist change we don’t understand. According to Rick Godwin, “one reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up, instead of what they have to gain.”
You can respect resistance by giving stakeholders a voice up front. Consider asking the most likely resistors to weigh in early with their fears, concerns, and needs so that you understand what they feel they are giving up. Control the urge to decide whether their feelings seem exaggerated or petty. Instead, respect that this is their reality. Listen with an open mind and use their specific input to inform future project communications. You’ll have a much better chance at positively positioning new processes and support tools if you are using reality-based objections and authentic language gathered during this step.
Most change management professionals haven’t built the day-to-day relationships or earned the trust that senior leaders and people managers have.
Step 3: Address it.
Ever heard of radical transparency? It emerged in the early 90s when Ray Dalio founded Bridgewater Associates, today’s largest hedge fund management firm. He believed that encouraging independent thinkers, bold enough to disagree with the consensus, was the best path to meaningful work. Get radical and address resistance head-on!
If you’ve put in the work by expecting and respecting resistance, you’ll have what you need in this final step to get your message to the front lines and make sure everyone knows what’s truly going on. Furthermore, you’ll have gathered the information necessary to articulate customized answers to “What is the change?”, “Why are we doing this?”, “Who will be affected?”, “What will we gain?” and of course “What’s in it for me?”
In this final step, you’ll recruit help from “resistance managers.” Why?
Most change management professionals haven’t built the day-to-day relationships or earned the trust that senior leaders and people managers have. Doing so takes time “in the trenches together.” In this last step, you’ll want to meet with your people leaders early and often. Keep them up to date on tools and timelines that will help them communicate the realities, challenges, and opportunities that come with the change.
Resistance is a good thing. Consider it a barometer for how passionate the people in your organization are. By expecting, respecting, and addressing resistance early in the process, you’ll avoid the biggest elephant in the room preventing meaningful change.