Bucking Resistance to Change

As an HR executive and consultant, I’ve been involved a lot with change and the resistance to it.  If you find yourself given the responsibility for change in your organization, here are some lessons I’ve learned and suggestions which might help you achieve that change with less resistance.

Right off, I’ve learned the very word ‘change’ feeds directly into resistance. When employees hear “I’d like you to change”, they really hear:  “You’re in trouble”  “You fail”  “You’re wrong” . Really sensitive people often hear  “I/they/we don’t like you.”  They sense an implied, “or else” threat, setting up defenses.

So learn to nix the “C” word. Instead of telling people they have to change, re-frame with a focus on the outcome you’re looking for which is less threatening. When we focus on outcome, there are more possibilities for learning.  When we focus on behavior, we could get into arguments, especially if we use the wrong word to describe the behavior.

If you aren’t clear about the true outcome you are looking for, you aren’t ready to have the discussion yet. 

  •  Instead of : “You are always critical of other ideas and it’s hard to work with you; that needs to change”
  • Try: “We are a small group dependent on one another to get a lot done. To get where we want to go we need to collaborate and share ideas. I have some thoughts on how we might strengthen this in our department that I would like to talk with you about…”
  • Instead of : “I need you to work on a project with another team. They could use your expertise but you are impatient and blunt. You need to change the way you talk with people and have more patience”
  • Try: “You have great experience in (x) which would be very helpful to the team working on (y).  Can we talk about the team and the project and how to best introduce you into the project so you can make your best contribution?”

Remember ‘WIFM’ (‘what’s in it for me’)? It still works. Be sure to connect the dots and describe how the achievement of the outcome will benefit the employee.  To do this effectively requires a good understanding of  the employee’s goals and aspirations.   Think and speak in terms of progressing further, developing and growing the employee. People may not like change but most do like to be developed and want to grow. If they can’t see that connection, they often default to the idea you are just picking on them.

If you can’t connect the dots, and demonstrate the benefits for the employee, you aren’t ready to talk with them yet.

Talking at employees (over and over), sending them offsite to training, writing them up, setting performance targets alone usually isn’t effective though this is often what is done. It’s also ineffective to hope for change by by ignoring them, by dropping hints or by talking to others and hoping it will get back to the employee.

Navigating through change discussions and motivating others is a key management and leadership competency. A productive discussion demands, among other interpersonal skills,  empathy, objective listening, emotional control, patience, a command of language.  Some leaders are conflict averse and resort to  indirect speech to avoid ‘drama’ and difficult conversations or challenge. Inadequate development in these competencies will undermine the ability to achieve needed change.

If you haven’t been trained in these needed competencies, you may be the barrier; it may not be a ‘resistant’ employee.

People are mostly unconscious about their behavior, about what they’re like and why, about the impact of their personality on others, on why they get certain  reactions and responses from others. This is important to remember. Conversations that assume a person’s behavior is conscious and intentional will be less effective.  If you want better outcomes, here are some things for you to consider:

Where is the resistance coming from?

Think back on failed efforts and ask yourself – was the person unable or unwilling to perform as you’ve asked?  Can’t is more about not knowing how,  about aa lack of resources, a schedule problem, about fixed physical conditions though accommodations  often overcomes those.

Unwillingness – or won’t – is different, linked directly to personal identity, to who someone is, their principles, values, beliefs. At times, it is linked to deep seated fear.  These are not always conscious. Unwillingness may come because your idea may seem wrong, too risky, or unethical.

If your way hasn’t started with clarifying whether you are dealing with ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ up to now, maybe you can see why some of the changes didn’t happen.

We all have preferred ways in which we want to lead, decide, problem solve, communicate, learn; we have different temperaments and values. While they are all natural, we are mostly unconscious about them and they can pose obstacles to our growth.  When we understand these better, it becomes  easier to effectively work together to achieve needed change.

If you haven’t considered use of assessment to gain insights into your own as well as to an employee’s  preferences and values, you’re making it harder on yourself to set the right table and frame the discussion.

I’m not naïve; I realize some people have deep seated resistance to change that can’t be overcome.  I just don’t think it’s as many as we might think. I hope sharing what I have learned has provided some food for thought to  lead you to greater success in your change management responsibilities.

Photo credit to Jake Luttinger  https://www.flickr.com/photos/meccanon

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