Look differently at ‘resistance to change’

The Minotaur

The Minotaur

When people talk about change, the next thing they talk about is resistance to change.
They use words like “roadblock”, and classify people as “blockers”. They analyse resistance on stakeholder maps, and work out strategies for “overcoming resistance”.
None of this is helpful. It is we, the leaders and agents of change, who need to get beyond these labels, and overcome the resistance in ourselves. Here’s what we need to think: there are people out there, they hold a different view from us, and they may be right.

there are people out there, they hold a different view from us, and they may be right.

I don’t think people resist change. People like new things. We all like new clothes, new experiences. We enjoy meeting new people, or learning new skills. A lot of the time we are bored at work, and would like something different to happen once in a while. Change programmes usually deliver all of these things: a change to the routine, new people, new opportunities to develop skills and meet new people. So why are leaders of change so pre-occupied with “resistance”?

Why do we encounter the phenomenon we label “resistance” and what should we do about it?

1. Listen, don’t label

If we are changing something, then other people will have a different idea. They will have a different idea about the objective, and a different idea about the way we are going about it.
They may not think that growth is such a great idea. They might not think cost-cutting is necessary, and certainly not in their area. They might not relish the idea of merging their operations with that other department. And even if they do agree with these great ideas, they might not like our way of going about it. They may tell us we are doing it too fast, and they don’t like our use of external consultants.

This is real disagreement. The first thing to do with disagreement is to listen to it. Remember: they may have a point. It does not help to label disagreement as “resistance” and try to “overcome” it. We should instead recognise disagreement as an interesting different idea, and enter into it. We should be prepared to change. We might be able to improve our solution or our method by listening to these people. We must enter into dialogue with them – real dialogue, from which change emerges.

See more on disagreement in this blog post on Disagreement Success.

2. Communicate now

Much so-called resistance to change is generated by poor communication.

The most frequent, and most tragic, objection to change is of the form “I wasn’t informed about it”.

If I wasn’t told, then I’m going to object, simply to slow things up while I get used to the idea.
Start communicating early. Communicate explicitly, widely, and fully. Communicate the fact that you are communicating. Get organised. Get feedback: on the change, the method, and on your communications. Explain the plan, the purpose, the benefits. Talk also about what’s not going to change – demonstrate continuity. There are people who are expert at communicating change. Use them.

4. Support, don’t shun

Despite what I’ve said above about the positive aspects of a change programme, there are going to be aspects which are distressing and unwelcome.

“All change is loss”.

Although there are some exciting new things, some old ones will have to go. While it is pleasurable to acquire a new coat, it’s sad to throw out the old one. It’s hard to learn new skills, especially if it implies that the old skills are no longer as valued as the new ones. That’s frightening. Learning takes effort, and people might fear they are not up to the task. People are going to have to form new working relationships. They worry about what’s going to happen to loyalties and trusted partnerships built up over previous years.
These are understandable emotions of sadness, fear and loss. People who experience these genuine emotions deserve to be heard, valued, and supported. Labelling them as “resistors” does not help. If  their distress is ignored, people will turn their sadness into anger. If change leaders don’t hear the emotion, then logical emotion will get turned into illogical argument. In business, it’s very difficult to say: “I’m sad because I really enjoyed working with that supplier – they’ve become a friend”. Instead it will be expressed as “The new supplier can’t deliver to our standard”. At this point, no amount of performance data will make the new supplier acceptable – the argument is no longer logical.

As change leaders an change agents, we need to move away from using thought patterns and vocabulary which brands people as “resisting change”. Once we’ve looked beyond the labels, and seen real people with logical positions, then we can more readily create a collaborative  programme. Those “blockers” may even be the people with the best ideas.

What’s your experience?

(1) If you are looking for an expert at communicating change, I recommend Jo Twisleton of Twist Consultants.
(2) The picture shows “The Minotaur” by Micheal Ayrton, described in this article. At the time of the photograph, September 2013, he was about to be moved into storage. You can see, he resisted the change. They caged him.

Categories: Communicating Change, The process of business change

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