Unwrapping Resistance to Change

Apr 20, 2012 No Comments by

Change Agent Tip #28

Open expressions of resistance can make a Change Agent’s work nearly impossible. But before diving right into confronting resistance, I recommend Change Agents take a closer look at the potential motivations behind it.

In my last post, I discussed how the changing price of raw cocoa on the world market may or may not have much to do with the real price of chocolate bars and Easter Bunnies on your local store shelf. It takes a bit of research to figure out which factors are having the most pressing impact on the overall market and the supply chain that runs from a country like the Ivory Coast – which produces more cocoa than any other nation – to that sweet-smelling store shelf.

I also introduced the idea that the need to “unwrap” the chocolate mystery is very much like an effective technique I advise Change Agents to use when they encounter resistance. 

Unwrapping Resistance: I suggested that the process of gaining understanding and directly addressing stakeholder resistance is critical to success. For illustration, I’d like to share a short list of four common examples of resistance:

–       Expressing Frustration

–       Foot-Dragging

–       Questioning the Rationale for Change

–       Openly Second-Guessing the Solution 

…and for each one I’ve taken a shot at what may be a possible underlying cause.

1. Visible Frustration – Shouting in meetings, writing strongly worded-emails, muttering in the back of the room during meetings and passive head shaking are all visible indicators of frustration. Those who react to change with open displays of frustration probably have quite a bit at stake.  They may also feel that their concerns are not being heard.

Searching for data in this situation without emotionally reacting to the display is critical to getting the information you’ll need to diffuse it. Ask open-ended questions to uncover what’s really going on.  Examples:

In what ways does the change make sense to you and in what ways is it not adding up?”

“Are you concerned about the time-lines, lack of resources or something else?”

“If you could offer one improvement in this area, what would you recommend?”

In each of these instances, the only way to know for sure what’s beneath the surface is to unwrap that resistance with frank questions and patient listening.

2. Foot-Dragging: People might not show up for training. They may ignore change-related communication or just plain put off important activities they should be doing to prepare for the change. When Change Agents see these things, it may be time to dig into the level of acceptance for the rationale behind the change.

Poke around a bit.  Find out why they may be struggling with the logic for the overall change or some part of it. You may even want to ask what other alternatives should be considered.  Ask what other feedback can they give the change team to make the overall change more effective?

Just be careful not to promise that the team or leadership will necessarily “change the change” or exempt any particular group from the change based on this feedback! Promise to listen and pass along the feedback.

The process I’m describing here is also a great opportunity to “fill in the blanks” when it comes to stakeholder expectations and correct misconceptions about the change. Without unwrapping these concerns through direct questions, the team may not have been aware of these gaps and risks.

3. Doubts About the New Way of Doing Things: Change Agents should also watch for signs that the specifics of the change are not being accepted or they aren’t fully understood. You may also hear phrases like “Things were fine the way they were.” or “That part wasn’t broken, so why do we have to fix it?” These doubts are usually more focused on a particular part of the change and indicate a lack of confidence in the way the new process is designed.

Henry Ford's assembly line was incredibly innovative at the time... then it wasn't.

Other common concerns may come out as legitimate questions about the design details of new  process / new system / new way of doing things such as “Why are we going to do it that way? or “Did the team even consider doing it this other way?

Again, in this case I advise Change Agents to probe without promising.

Ask questions like “What other alternatives do you think should have been considered?” Evaluate if the suggested alternative is plausible or if the time has passed for that type of consideration. If the future state has already been determined, be clear in reaffirming that condition and offer to help stakeholders learn more about the new way. Circle back with those who expressed concern to see which of their fears fade and which linger.

4. Second-Guessing: When expressions of doubt, foot-dragging and open questioning go on endlessly even after having been addressed and the same people continuously shine a negative light on the new way of doing things, a Change Agent may be forced to call it what it is: resistance.

Allowing resistance to fester is a bit like driving a car with one foot pressing the gas and another foot holding the brake!

In this case, your stakeholders may have more on their mind than simple dissatisfaction. They may be simply struggling to accept the organization’s decision, so they want it reconsidered.

Three root causes I have seen for this desire to “override the veto” and re-visit previously-closed decisions are:

  1. History: Perhaps the person expressing this form of resistance had a significant role in creating and sustaining the status quo – and the change is a direct challenge to their past contribution. It may even look to them like a blatant repudiation of their hard work.
  2. Exclusion: Perhaps they don’t believe they had a fair chance to contribute to defining the “new” process. They may feel as if they had good ideas which were ignored, so they plan to hold up the change adoption process until their inputs get recognized.
  3. Legitimate Risk: Finally, there is a chance that these stakeholders honestly believe that the organization is making a grave mistake by pursuing the chosen option for change and it’s their job to help the team avoid potential disaster. In this case, a second look is probably in order, but a third and fourth look is probably something to be avoided.

Summary: The underlying causes of what we call “resistance to change” may not be clear when we focus only on the surface or look only at the emotions that our stakeholders display.  Just like unwrapping that piece of chocolate to discover what’s inside, Change Agents should take the time to look a bit deeper than the surface layer of evidence before assuming – or taking action based on their assumptions!

In my next article, I’ll close this series by illustrating how we could potentially deal with the underlying causes for “resistance to change” described in each of these four examples.


Question for Chatter:

  • I sometimes caution Change Agents that “Where people stand on a given issue often depends upon where they sit…”. How can a person’s organizational position shape their apparent “resistance to change”?

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!
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