Resistance Is A Call To Action

May 01, 2012 No Comments by

Change Agent Tip #29

Resistance is a very real force that works against your chances of successful change. Change Agents must not only recognize it – but actively address it or they may risk lukewarm adoption, or – in the worst case – total rejection of the change.

In the first two posts of this series, I described ways that those charged with making change happen can identify and “unwrap” the resistance that may be slowing down adoption of their change.

For illustration, I chose four examples of stakeholder behavior that are often labeled as active or passive resistance:

  • Open expressions of Frustration such as heated verbal exchanges during meetings, head-shaking, muttering or strongly-worded e-mails.
  • Foot-Dragging that may take the form of ignoring change-related communications, missing deadlines for preparation or failure to attend training.
  • Openly Second-Guessing the Solution – especially the specifics of what will change.
  • Questioning the Rationale for change – especially the specifics of why the change is needed.

I chose these four examples, but as some of you have noted, there are many, many more forms of resistance to change. In each case, the solution to breaking the change deadlock is rooted in direct dialogue. Let’s look at how this principle applies to each example.

It's hard to find a better picture of frustration than this famous pose from Jackie Chan... If Change Agents see anything close to this face, then need to take action immediately!

1. Dealing with Frustration: Frustration is often a sign that people don’t feel listened-to. It can also indicate a sense of overwhelm. This can be especially true when the pace of your change is moving very quickly. Another source of frustration can be a sense that the implementation team didn’t involve enough people in designing the change.

Address the overwhelm challenge with direct dialogue about the work load and day-to-day priorities. Since most changes are rolled out in parallel with “normal” operations, it’s a good idea to work with project managers and operational leaders to account for the change-related work as well as people’s “regular jobs”. Perhaps the team, (or a few individuals), need to step back and recalibrate which activities are truly needed immediately and which can wait.

Tackling the perception of having been excluded from the decision-making or the design process can be a bit more tricky – especially if the change is already underway.  Engage in dialogue to gather feedback. Listen sincerely to people’s suggestions and add that data to the risk-mitigation process. Just be careful not to promise you’ll make any particular plan adjustments without first assessing the impact and avoid implying that the change will stop moving forward. (See more on this topic below…)

2. Re: Foot-Dragging – How to Pick Up the Pace of Self-Directed Stakeholder Preparation: Fixing a lack of momentum in this area starts with quantifying it. One way to recognize that foot-dragging could be taking place is to use the classic project management technique of setting milestones and defining date ranges.

Change Agents should establish clear, date-driven expectations for when stakeholder preparation activities will be started and completed. The time window should allow stakeholders enough latitude to control their own schedules while still accomplishing their prep work in a timely manner.

Preparatory training for stakeholders typically takes place within a window of time that starts early enough to avoid undue schedule pressure, but not so early that people forget the material. Define this window with input from stakeholders and the folks who will provide training. As Change Agents communicate the need for training, they should include the schedule range and the expectation that training progress will be monitored.

Finally, use the tracking information to identify leading and lagging trends among stakeholders and groups. Circle back with those who drag their feet and verify that other forms of resistance aren’t behind the lack of progress.

Not all challenges to your change are attempts to blow it up. Change Agents should be open to listening, even if the initial feedback might be expressed quite emotionally.

3. & 4. Lingering Doubts About the Solution or the Rationale: Sometimes stakeholders, (especially those who are uniquely positioned to influence others), continually question the rationale for the change or the design of the change well after the time has passed for such decisions about the “how” and the “why”.

I suggest two techniques to address this kind of second-guessing:

a. Early Engagement: The first method is preventative and might seem obvious. Involve as many “in-the-weeds” stakeholders as is practical in the early stages of change development. Engage a range of representatives from management as well as the front lines to verify the logic behind the change and provide input on the future desired state.

Mitigate the risk of large group stalemate during this early process by building the core definition of the change with a smaller group first, then inviting a wider audience to provide feedback before moving forward.

I like the idea of having subject matter experts take a very active role in these discussions as opposed to simply having executives or other organizational leaders dictate solutions. Also, Change Agents should strive to take a facilitative role here and avoid prescribing answers as if they were the “experts” in the stakeholder areas of specialty.

OBTW: It can also help to hold some of the feedback sessions with no executives or high-level managers present at all.  I know I’m less comfortable giving frank feedback in the presence of my “boss”.

b. Downstream Review of the Rationale and Design: The second method of combating second-guessers is prescriptive. If early engagement is impossible – or impractical – then give a broader group of key stakeholders significant review opportunities later. Take their input to heart and look for ways to use this information to improve the change.

If stakeholders share legitimate concerns that could sink the entire change – or a key part of it – the team really should slow down and consider it. Do so diligently and quickly. Vet their concerns, adjust or reaffirm the decision, then communicate closure in an open forum. This will help to mitigate long-term back-channel scrutiny.

One final note on this review process: the change team must respond to the feedback – whether the response involves updating the change approach or sharing how the new input did not persuade the change team to alter the original decisions.  OBTW: Recognizing inputs can go a long way toward melting the frozen status quo – just don’t pander or go over the top. That can look condescending.

That’s a Wrap!  I started this series by talking about how the factors which impact the final cost of chocolate may not be inherently obvious. I used this economic example to introduce the need for Change Agents to identify and unwrap resistance to change.

I then introduced a few common forms of resistance that Change Agents may face in the course or rolling out a big change and closed today by listing a few potential ways to address common challenges to healthy change adoption.

Hopefully your change doesn’t involve the kind of civil unrest our chocolate story did – but it may well involve market-changing forces. With so much at stake, you can expect a bit of resistance. Just remember that some of it may not be as simple as it first appears. Dig a little deeper. Tear off that foil wrapper and learn more about the root causes that underlie the situation so you can really help your stakeholders turn the corner and begin to adopt your change.


Questions for Chatter:

  • Have you seen clear displays of resistance to change that were openly tolerated by the people in your organization who should have been acting as Change Agents?
  • Is it possible for Change Agents to “listen too much” to the feedback of those who criticize the rationale for the change or how it’s being rolled out?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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