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Change Management

6 Smart Strategies for Turning Resistance to Change Into Progress (3 of 4)

This is the third of a four-part series on the four essential drivers of long-term value for any organizational transition. It provides actionable tips on handling, and even creating resistance during the transition journey. The final article will help you imbed lasting change into an organization. 

Previously covered:

  1. Navigating Change: 6 Questions Every Leader Must Ask During a Team Transition
  2. Communicating Change: How to Communicate Tough News without Losing Trust

It should come as no surprise that proposed new ways of doing things will not be universally accepted. The change will almost certainly have a detrimental impact on one or more jobs inside an organization. This third installment emphasizes the necessity of anticipating pushback and viewing adversity as a gift. 

What if you reframe resistance? Could it be thought of as a lamp that illuminates the way forward? This is what I mean…Instead of viewing opposition as a barrier or headwind to overcome, consider pushback as a chance to broaden your viewpoint and understanding. Gaining this clarity usually leads to a much clearer way to progress along your change journey. 

Resistance is a natural defense mechanism. It typically comes to the fore during the absence of information. People tend to fill in gaps with inaccurate assumptions and “what-ifs.” A significant portion of this article relates to how we interact when faced with opposition; see below for practical tips. Also, read our second installment on impactful communications techniques. 

1. Determine How Much You Can Anticipate

How much can you anticipate? An important outcome of your stakeholder analysis is knowing what each affected group values. Compare this to the expected impacts of the upcoming transition. Could there be notable friction between the two? If so, proactively address them in your communications planning. Anticipate negative comments and initiate ways to deflect or minimize apprehensions. Starting a statement with “You may be concerned about the extra hours involved with…” highlights your empathy and understanding. 

2. Thank the Opposition & Reward the Resisters

Should you really thank someone for opposing the change? Yes! What a gift it is. First, it usually provides you with perspective you did not have and that you can act upon. Second, it gives voice to a potential problem that otherwise would have been covert and likely festered to a point of much greater damage later in the transition. Reward resisters. I know it’s not intuitive, but it works. 

3. Make It Safe & Ask Someone to Resist

Similar to the tip above, make it safe for anyone to voice their concerns. Before your next group meeting, ask a trusted colleague to publicly disagree with some aspect of your change planning. Thank them and explore their idea in front of the team. It will be a strong signal to the rest that it is safe to respectfully offer a dissenting opinion. 

4. Seek a Mutual Positive Stance

Can you “turn” them? Some of my favorite change moments have been compassionately addressing resistors in a manner that they subsequently became some of the most vocal cheerleaders for the change. Prioritize strong opponents and dedicate time to understand their views. Approach with curiosity. Ask probing questions. Seek to find a mutual positive stance on which to build agreement.  

5. Search for Root Causes

Is it a symptom you are hearing or a root cause? Every individual’s perception of the change is well, individual. As change leaders, we rarely know the full story of why an employee may push back hard on what your team is trying to accomplish. Often the common objections simply are symptoms of a deeper issue. Instead of “it will take too long”, the root cause may be “I’m scared that I am going to lose my job”. As appropriate, search out root causes. Satisfying the symptoms will only be temporary. 

6. Put Yourself in Their Position

What does emotion have to do with it? In most cases of addressing resistance, emotion trumps logic. Substantive shifts in processes and roles naturally will generate angst in some colleagues. Responding with data that validates why the proposed change will benefit the company likely will be ineffective. Offering logical rationale of long-term competitive value will fall short. Instead, consider the emotions or feelings that are needed to assuage fears or add clarity to an uncertain future. Putting yourself in their position is a nice place to start. 

Closing Thoughts

Lean into voiced opposition and concerns. Welcome them with curiosity and appreciation. Or try asking, “what are you most anxious about with this change?” Then listen attentively and take notes on the gift you are about to receive. 

Check back next week for the final installment of this series on how to reinforce change as a leader. This subject is critical but often overlooked.

Gary McClure is a senior consultant at Thrivence, a consulting firm specializing in strategy, leader development, organizational performance, and technology. For more than 15 years, Gary has led organizational transformation initiatives and taught leaders how to navigate successful change. He can be reached at gary.mcclure@thrivence.com.  

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