“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
Think about the last time you resisted a change that was either thrust upon you or took you by surprise. How did you react? What range of emotions did you experience? How strong were these emotions? How long did it take for you to come to terms with the change? Can you remember the tell-tale signs that you exhibited that showed how you felt? Most importantly, what was the catalyst for you to get past your resistance and embrace the new and different?
Let’s be honest – we have all resisted change at some stage in our lives. Just because we wear ‘executive hats’ it does not preclude us from going through the wide range of emotions that go hand in hand with uncertainty, ambiguity and chaos. The underlying concerns we all have are as varied as they are long. As executives, we are charged with the responsibility to respond to resistance, not treat it like a battle with a string of strategies to overcome employee opposition.
Think about it this way – not all change is good and the reason we sometimes resist is because we have sound logical reasons against the change. We all have the ability to be a firm resister to change, especially if we feel that our values, beliefs, morals, or business ethos is being challenged. Broad brushing employees as ‘one size fits all resisters’ leads to misunderstandings that increases the void of communication, understanding and empathy. We may not be able to put words to our logical reasons as yet and so it is our responsibility to encourage dialogue and help each other uncover individual concerns.
So let’s take a look at a range of change resistance behaviours and see what we can do to alleviate the misunderstandings and bring people closer to a shared understanding of what is really going on.
The Sentry Post
This is a nice, clean type of resistance where they just say “No!” usually without reasons. Asking questions like “What specifically worries you?” or “What in particular do you object to?” will give you information and a starting point for your conversations. Fully examine the resistance by listening actively and asking questions to clarify. Be sure you have heard and explored what the resister has to say before moving on to action planning. Do not jump in too soon and assume you know their position – you may be entirely wrong and it will only frustrate the other person and close down the communication channels.
The Quiet Assassin
These people say in effect: “Tell me exactly what you want me to do.” This is a hidden form of resistance. If you fall for it, they will comply with the bare minimum, but not the spirit of what you want. Ask: “Are you quite clear about what is being asked and expected of you?” “What resources/support do you require to get your job done in the new environment?” This should reinforce that the change will be happening and provide an opening for them to discover what they need from you. This will take many conversations, so be patient, maybe even buddy them with someone they trust. People are fragile when they feel vulnerable and they often come out fighting when they are stuck in denial. It will be your responsibility to be a provider and an enabler of change. The end game is to not leave them behind and empower them towards good performance.
Outwardly, they appear on-board with the change, however you may hear “I’ll get on to it first thing Monday morning.” And then, of course, something more important crops up. If you think this is a resistance tactic rather than an honest response, try asking “Is there anything preventing you from beginning now?” or “Tell me how you feel about changing…”
The Cynical Gossiper
The water cooler whispers and corridor conversations that keep the organisation going – the “Rumour Mill” – can be difficult to contain. This type of resistance can sometimes appear to have a greater following than it actually has however it can destabilise your efforts quite effectively. Emotional capital is the currency that these resisters trade in. Quite often, they will not verbally object to you in a larger group setting – it is their closed off body language that will be a red flag for you. The best way to tackle these is head on in a one-to-one conversation. Discovering common ground is a great way to start discussions but you will also need to be scrupulous about presenting your position, factual data and your support to them as an individual during the change process. Over-exaggerating the benefits or downplaying their concerns will only lead to further scepticism. Remember, they will either become your enemy or your ally depending on how you approach them.
The History Teacher
“But we’ve always done it the other way.” Sometimes the old way is the best way, but most often the appeal to tradition is straightforward resistance of the “better the devil we know” variety. Try saying, “I understand the old way worked very well; however, this situation is unique.” Or “Yes, the old approach worked well – how can we adapt it to this way?” You might also hear “We tried that ‘x’ years ago before you were around (or born) and it was a disaster!” Asking them about those details is the only way to get them on your side. Allow them the space to describe how it did go wrong and ask probing questions about the failure. Responding with the organisational and environmental differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’ will help them see that things have changed since that last attempt. There is now a greater chance of success as the organisation is in a better place to handle the change. Be open and honest about the challenges ahead and the need for them to be a part of the implementation team to ensure that you do learn from the past!
The Employee Representative
These resisters imply that “the staff” (or someone else) won’t approve. This may or may not be true, but don’t discuss it now. Say something like: “I appreciate your concern and I’ll check it out. Meanwhile, what I’d like you to do is……” or “I’ll bear that in mind. What objections do you have?”
The Ducker and Weaver
“Let someone else do it!” They like to switch the attention from themselves onto someone else or even another department. If your request is reasonable, don’t fall for this tactic. Let them know that it is from them that you are expecting thought, engagement and action.
The aim here is guilt and sympathy. There is a deliberate attempt to make you feel guilty for asking them to alter their ways, try something new and cope with perceived mountains rather than the molehills presented to them. This could be in response to their lack of coping strategies and their strong preference for routine and simplicity. Empathise with them, use active listening techniques and, unless their reasons are very sound, confirm with them (repeatedly) what the changes will mean to their day to day working life.
The Fence Sitter
This is another passive form of resistance, however it is not as insipid as some of the others. They may genuinely be confused or just not interested…yet. Do not confuse this with denial. Fence Sitters are more likely to appear disengaged (blank stare, no eye contact, doodling fiddling, appearing bored etc.) so you will need to inspire to engage them in your discussions. Give them a reason to want to change with the team. Explore through stories/data (whatever you think they would prefer) how the current situation does not support the bigger picture anymore. Check their understanding and sell them the direct benefits.
This form of resistance can be tricky. If you find yourself being surprised by someone’s enthusiastic response, e.g. “Wow! What a great idea!”, look for quick delay as a follow-up. If this happens, you can be fairly sure the person is telling you what you want to hear but intends to do nothing about it. Say something like, “I’m really glad you think it’s a good idea. What in particular do you like about it?” It will force them to engage in a positive conversation, particularly if it is done in public.
On a final note
Let’s not forget the employees that are actually behind the change. Our attention is usually taken up by those who resist, however a strong ‘coalition of supporters’ (Kotter) can relieve you of much of the burden. They are more likely to build momentum for the change, ask interesting and probing questions and start looking for solutions. These employees are our allies and we need to sustain their enthusiasm with success stories, troubleshooting and implementation plans.
Andrea Collett is CBB’s Senior HR Consultant. If you have any queries about how to navigate your team /organisation through the white water rapids of change, she can be contacted via email email@example.com or by mobile on 0422 437 153.