8 Ways to Deal with Resistance to Change

Jan 16, 2011 7 Comments by

Resistance happens. Even with Change Agents. In fact, you’re setting your change initiative up for failure if your strongest supporters are blindly “selling it” without having thought through their own concerns or those of your stakeholders.

In my last post, I told the story of traveling home this past week using an e-Boarding Pass for the first time.  This new technology allows airline fliers to skip the printing of a paper boarding pass and have a message sent to their web-enabled cell phone which accomplishes the same purpose.

I wonder what else this random pattern of black and white  dots says about me?

The message contains a “QR Code” that looks like the picture on the right and when read by a special scanner, it gives travel authorities the same information that appears on a paper pass.

According to SITA’s  2009 Airline IT Trend Survey,mobile boarding passes account for 2.1% of travelers (vs. paper boarding passes) and they forecast that the percentage of travelers using this technology will rise to 11.6% in 2012.

Those using the QR Code could be classified as “early adopters” in the language of Organizational Change Management (OCM). Since I am an OCM guy, I tried the new technology for the first time this week and had a natural human reaction otherwise known as “resistance to change”.

I went into the process fully committed, somewhat clueless and otherwise intrigued. But along the way, I had some serious doubts whether the QR Code would transmit properly and whether I’d be sent to the back of the security line or even miss my flight.  So at the last minute, I printed a backup paper copy.

Even though I made it home just fine using the new gadget-based credential, my actions reminded me that no one is immune from this natural reaction to new things.  I shared a list of 8 ways to diffuse potential resistance – and today I’ll go into more detail on that list. (Let me know if you have additional ideas by commenting on the questions below)

1.     Always Anticipate Some Push-Back.  When planning for your change, be ready for the natural reaction that all humans have to change. We can call it resistance, call it “getting over the hump”, call it fear or any other label, but it’s something we all do.  Even folks like me who claim to love change are not immune from resisting it when something important is at stake… like getting home after a long day.

2.     Create Opportunities to Vent: One of the most effective ways to deflate fear is to talk through it. I usually advocate that project teams build in a way for stakeholders to express what makes them nervous about the change within some acceptable boundaries. Site visits, surveys, town halls and dozens of other techniques can be useful for this.

3.     Listen: Be willing to hear the legitimate (and not so legit) concerns your stakeholders share.  You don’t have to agree with them and you certainly don’t want to excuse them from the change just because they complain, but sometimes the act of listening to a person talk thru the fear is enough to help them diffuse it.

4.     Look for trends in the resistance… There will usually be patterns to the resistance.  For example, if most of the company is fine with the move to a new technology tool, but one division is off the charts with resistance, you may want to dig deeper into that part of the org chart.  Or if 4 of the 5 major elements of your change are getting a warm reception, but the numbers are low for the fifth one, you may need to adapt your communication approach a bit.

5.     Be Specific: Create ways to help people thru the very specific concerns they have.  It can be helpful to brainstorm targeted answers to the most fear-laden, most complex and most common questions that stakeholders have.  Capture them as FAQ’s or cover them with training.

6.     Be Honest: I once had a client tell me she hated the term “buy-in” because it implied that she was being sold something or even being sold out. If the new way of doing things involves giving something up that the stakeholders are very fond of, you’d better provide a good alternative or you’d at least bring an acknowledgement that you are adding hassle to their lives.  Example: if your change involves replacing an old “green screen” software system with a new GUI-based one, most people will be OK with it as long as they can still do their work. But if that rollout also involves changing who does what or eliminating positions, you need to be honest with them.  Trust me: your people will learn the truth eventually, and when they do, your soft-peddled answer will look like a lie.

7.     Bend But Don’t Break: Look for creative ways to ease them into the change.  Can they continue on with the old way for a while as they learn the new way?  Set a solid date for when you’ll totally eliminate the old way of doing things, but also account for a period of transition. Consider having a pilot group of early adopters go first. Maybe try a phased roll-out or even a brief period of parallel operations if it can be done without sacrificing the project’s goals.  ExampleThere is no rule against a passenger carrying BOTH a paper boarding pass and an ePass for the same flight.  Maybe after a few flights of carrying both, my confidence will be robust enough to go all-digital at some point…

8.     Silence is NOT golden.  Don’t believe for a minute that everyone’s OK with your change just because they aren’t vocally complaining.  In many cases, people avoid even thinking about your change until they absolutely have to. Their resistance may only surface after their first exposure to the change – even if you’ve been working on it for months.  I encourage my clients to do regular listening activities to gauge where stakeholder’s heads are through the course of a change.  When I do surveys of this type, the first question I ask is “What have you heard so far?” and the first option for answers is “Nothing… this is the first I’ve heard of it”.  When things are going poorly, you will typically hear more feedback than you want. When they are going well, you will potentially hear very little feedback. When people haven’t seen enough or done enough to form an opinion, you will almost certainly hear nothing. In any case, you should push for data rather than wait for it.

Summary: Just like flying, implementing change can include dealing with occasional turbulence.  While Change Agents may be held to a higher standard when it comes to accepting new things, it doesn’t mean they can’t resist from time to time too.  It’s a natural human reaction. Use these eight techniques to help your stakeholders deal with their concerns and you’ll be well on your way home.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What other techniques have you used to address resistance to change?
  2. Which techniques above tend to yield the best results and which are less effective?

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

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

7 Responses to “8 Ways to Deal with Resistance to Change”

  1. Anne says:

    Perhaps someone can offer some advice. I am in leadership at a home school co-op/academy. One of our teachers was a founder but no longer has children enrolled. We are trying to go in a new direction, modifying, refining, etc. This teacher is continually dictating to us about “in the past we did such and such…” and will not back off of giving constant advice. She is an asset to our organization in many respects and that has been communicated to her, but does not understand that she is no longer in leadership. No matter how we try to explain things, she pushes back with the “it should be done this way, otherwise you are not serving our families…” What would you suggest?

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the question Anne,
      It sounds like a classic case that comes up quite often in non-profits and volunteer organizations that I have worked with. The fact that you are dealing with a founder is doubly difficult because you are essentially trying to change “their” enterprise. It’s tricky – but my goal is always to engage them without discouraging them.
      Here are 4 things that have worked for me in the past:
      1. Be clear: Prioritize a small set of very specific changes that you intend to make and be painstakingly clear about what you are changing, why it needs to change and how the change will unfold. Whether this is developed collaboratively with the membership or just with the leadership group is your choice. This clarity will help your founder see that you actually have a plan and that the plan is not as much about rejecting her original vision, but choosing to introduce necessary changes.
      2. Follow the rules: Engage the official leadership of the organization in the formal decision-making process while including all other stakeholders in the proper listening/feedback parts of the process. It has been my experience that the kind of pushback you face is often fueled by a process that confuses decision input with decision authority. (incredibly common in my public education clients) Sometimes folks with no official role over-use criticism as their only way to prove that they should be allowed to contribute.
      3. Play fair. Play nice. Don’t try to “defeat” the founder’s ideas with logic, belittle their input in any way or argue with them. (it can be excruciatingly tempting to do this) Simply ask for their input in the proper place, honestly consider it and frankly excuse them from the decision making process unless they have a formal role in it. (See how many times you can say this: “Thanks Nancy. Do you have any other input before the leadership team makes this decision?”)
      4. Lead. Finally, leadership may have to remind everyone who currently has the burden to lead at this moment. The execution of the change and operation under the new process need to be done in an open way that allows feedback on how it’s going without promising to unwind or un-decide your strategic direction. Those with authority sometimes need to remind folks that they were placed there to execute. If the founder wants the authority back, they can compete for it under legitimate means and then steer the organization however they wish once it’s theirs to run. Until then, they have input – but driving is not their role. have her read the story of Steve Jobs multiple lives within the Apple story if she needs motivation.
      …those are my thoughts off the top of my head with no knowledge of the details. Hope that helps?

  2. Blog 3: Positive Impact of Organisational Change | ngonapoom says:

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  3. Mark Berns says:

    Good article.

    One point you mention that can help those in the “OCM guy” role is about resisters having something important at stake. Resistance often signals some level of passion aimed at protecting something that seems about to vanish. Acknowledging the value of that something and of its loss can help the resisters turn that passion in the direction the organization is hoping to go.

    • Steve says:

      Good suggestion Mark.
      I agree that acknowledgement of a stakeholder’s impending “loss” is important.
      I also caution Change Agents to be careful not to let this acknowledgement slip into commiserating or condoning the resistance.
      Thanks for taking the time to chime in!

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  5. Lisa Crispin says:

    Great list! I would add:
    Patience – it takes lots of time to make necessary cultural changes that enable other changes. Keep providing support and helping team focus on their goal, whatever that goal is. For my team, it was a commitment to producing the best quality software we possibly could.
    Foster a learning culture, tolerate mistakes – let people experiment, don’t beat them up when experiments go wrong, give them time to learn. Otherwise, change can never happen.

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