Change Agent Tip #34: Fall in Line

Jun 28, 2012 1 Comment by

There’s a time to fall in love and a time to fall in line.

Sorry to put it so bluntly, but while some changes are perceived as being a good deal for everyone involved, sometimes change is needed for less-then-positive reasons. In the world of implementing change, the chances are good that you’ll see both ends of the spectrum if you stick around long enough.

Until a Change Agent embraces their own change, it will be hard for them to draw others toward accepting it.

What’s In It For Me? I think it’s important for Change Agents to fully understand what they’re selling before they start the change process.

That’s why instead of simply saying that “Change is Good”, I prefer to say that “Good Change is Good.”  This implies that most people will judge a change on its positive merits and negative impacts before accepting it.

As we discussed last time, even a positive change will not be accepted until and unless the stakeholders of that change see the benefits for themselves. The need for Change Agents to step up and own the positive elements of their change was the crux of my argument in my last post called “Fall in Love”.

But what about the case where your change actually stinks?

  • What if the best rationale you can come up with for making a change is that it helps the team avoid a big disaster?
  • What if the best thing you can say is that the alternative to adopting your change is far worse than the pain it will take to get through the transition? I refer to this situation as a “negative change”.

“I’m only gonna tell you this once…”

Today I’ll address this unsavory side of the coin with a bit of frank advice for Change Agents: Fall in Line.

But why do we have to fall in line?

Because selling negative change is nearly impossible if you’re in camp with the forces of resistance.

If you think it’s hard to convince stakeholders to adopt a relatively positive change, imagine how hard it can be in the case of a negative change. In fact, using the same logic I mentioned earlier, it’s going to be very hard to help people adapt to a negative change if the Change Agent has not yet worked their way through the acceptance process to a point that they support the change in a strong way.

It’s nearly impossible if Change Agents condone resistance and foot-dragging by passively or actively endorsing the logic of those who hold out.

With the deck already being stacked against a negative change, their open support will be even more important.

       OK, I’ll do it… but how?

You’ll need a focused plan and plenty of perseverance.

It may be a long, hard climb – but your change will likely be much harder if you attempt to blindly “hammer it in”.

To that end, here are five suggestions for handling negative change:

1. Get Ahead of It. Engage your sponsors early and capture the bottom line rationale for the change. If there isn’t already a clear “company line” about this change, help facilitate the creation of one.

Change Agents need to get deep enough into the details of the change that they can anticipate what will cause resistance. For example; what are the potentially negative impacts that people may push back on? What are the most common fears and how will they be addressed?

Lay out a thorough communication strategy that reaches all impacted stakeholders with the basic messages about the change. Most importantly, be ready to explain why the overriding concern being addressed by the change outweighs the investment. This will define what it means to “get in line”.

2. Be Honest.  Being up-front with people will go a long way toward building the trust needed in a difficult change situation. Ensure that everyone charged with communicating about the change is working from the same list of key points.

Encourage Change Agents  to avoid “winging it” or making up answers that other team members may have to explain or contradict later. Stay aligned and stay as transparent as you can be without generating inappropriate levels of concern.

3. Be Brave. Failure to take a stance in the face of a difficult change yields confusion and delay as stakeholders wait to see which way the winds of change blow. Be bold and be brave. Do your homework so you will know what tough questions to anticipate. By doing so, you’ll be ready because you will have worked through common concerns for yourself as a part of your own adoption process.

My rule of thumb for this situation is:

“Even the strongest support for a tough change may yield slow results, but lukewarm support will never get better than lukewarm results. Silence from those leading the change will almost assuredly result in failure.”

4. Clarify the Rules. Take time to spell out the minimum expectations your change will place on stakeholders. For example, if you are moving from a single, fully-funded health care plan for all employees to a new plan that includes multiple coverage options and stiff employee contributions, be clear about when you need people to respond with their preferences. Be clear about exactly what choices and limitations they will have. Give them everything they need in order to make their decisions and own the results of their choices.

5.  Follow Through. Leverage the strong support of your Change Sponsors to follow through on the timelines and expected outcomes of the change – even if that requires a lot of reinforcement.

You may need to identify individuals who can check in with people in different parts of the organization just to get a feel for how thoroughly the change is being understood and accepted. Following up on what they discover can help you address pockets of festering resistance.

The Big Backdrop: As regular readers of this blog know, I firmly believe that all change is rooted in a set of very personal decisions. I have also said in the past that organizations don’t change – people do. And they rarely adopt a change unless and until they see their own personal best interest being aligned with the new collective direction being offered by the organization. Even in the case of negative change, I believe these principles still apply.

So when dealing with negative change, I would encourage Change Agents to consider this “environment of free will” as a backdrop for a series of individual decisions as you craft your messages and enforce your rules.

If you’ve laid out a clear adoption expectation for stakeholders and made your case for why the change is needed, the onus will be on each of them to make the tough personal decision to follow the path your group is taking or choose to go in another direction.

The choice is theirs. (…as much as some top-down dictators of change would disagree! ) In either case, the more room there is for indecision, the longer the change will take and the less effective the results will be.


Questions for Chatter:

  • What can go wrong if stakeholders are not given enough factual information to make their choice of whether or not to go along with a negative change?
  • Have you been a part of a change where the “fall in line” approach was taken to an extreme with negative results?

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

About the author

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

One Response to “Change Agent Tip #34: Fall in Line”

  1. We’re Only Human | theBigRocks of Change says:

    […] I discussed in my recent posts about “Falling in Line” with a change -vs- “Falling in Love” with a change…  At some point we may […]

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