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Leadership

How To Better Anticipate—And Deal With—With Resistance To Change

Change never occurs in a vacuum. Neither does resistance to change. Both occur in the context of real people struggling with real (or imagined) issues that have real (or imagined) consequences. Change takes us out of our comfort zones and produces stress. It's often the stress that people resist, not the change itself. Even positive change produces stress. Just ask anyone who's planned a wedding.

Just like tornadoes and other forms of rough weather, resistance comes with its own set of early warning signs:

Confusion

No matter how carefully you've tried to make a case for your change, some people won't get it. It's not that they're trying to give you a hard time. They just don't yet understand the implications of the change you're proposing. They'll often ask questions like "So, why are we doing this?" "How is this going to impact my budget?" "What will this do to my reporting relationships?" "What will this mean for my current situation?" In other words, "What's In It For Me?" Don't be troubled by this. Expect it. People have a natural tendency to absorb information that reinforces their current paradigms and filter out data that contradict—or threaten—their current views or situations. Be patient. You'll likely need to explain your change plans over and over and over again.

Silence

You make your presentation and people sit in stone silence. Are they stunned by your brilliance? Do they unanimously agree with you? Are they simply too shy to talk? Silence can be tough to handle because it's sort of like lassoing a cloud. Never assume that silence means acceptance. Silence can mean acceptance, but it can also mean anything from "I don't have a clue what you're talking about" to "I'll do what you're asking only when hell freezes over." One way to prime the discussion pump is to answer a series of unasked questions—real questions that you anticipate people might want to ask but are afraid they'll come across as impertinent or misinformed or just plain stupid.

Easy Agreement

Some people may agree with you without hesitation. That may seem ideal, but you need to be sure they understand the implications of the change you're championing. Don't simply make a presentation and expect people to click their heels and salute. Be sure to engage people in genuine dialogue. Otherwise you risk their swallowing your message whole without fully digesting it, realizing only later that it gave them heartburn.

Denial

The ostrich effect (head in the sand) is a common behavior of people confronted by the need to change. Denial can take many forms: "The foam coming off the wings during launch poses no threat to the space shuttle." "Germs are a myth. Washing my hands between surgeries is a nuisance." "That survey finding doesn't really apply to me and my group."
How do you deal with denial?

Malicious Compliance

A couple of Army privates were ordered by an overbearing officer to paint a room "all white." The officer’s self-important manner was particularly obnoxious, so the young enlisted men decided to engage in malicious compliance—obeying the order to the absolute letter. They indeed painted the room "all white," including the floor, the ceiling, the window panes, the doors and door knobs, the desk, the chairs, the telephone, and even the light switches. Double-coated, exactly as ordered.

What's an example of this in the office? How do you deal with it as a manager?

Diversion

Many resisters are from the Yeahbut Tribe— "Yeah, but this won't work because …" "Yeah, but you didn't consider …" "Yeah, but the reason I can't do this is …" Diversionary tactics include scapegoating, rehashing the past, and telling victim, villain, and helpless stories. Diversions often occur in meetings where people flit like nervous flees from one subject to another. Some diversions are no doubt deliberate, but many are unconscious. Unless you recognize them for what they are and address them squarely, they will stall your change into oblivion.

Watch for these signs of resistance as it forms. But when resistance does rear its head, what should you do?

Your Resistance To-Do List
•Double check your assumptions about resistance. Learn to regard resistance as an opportunity to clarify your message, fine-tune your approach, or even course correct your direction. Some of your best ideas can come from people who disagree with you.
•Use resistance as a springboard to dialogue, not as an evil enemy to be clubbed into submission.
•Pinpoint the source. Is the resistance about the "what" or the "how" of your change? Is the resister sad about losing the old (the present) or apprehensive about the meaning of the new (the future)?
•Listen more, talk less. Engage people in conversations about their work. Ask questions that prime the pump for dialogue. What gets in their way? What makes their work fulfilling to them? What concerns do they have? What could make things better for them? At this point you're not at all in the judging mode. You're in the gathering mode. Listen with empathy. Dig. Make it safe for people to express their views.
•Invite honest introspection. Ask open-ended questions like "If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change around here?" or "If your best friend applied for a job here, what would you tell him to expect if he got hired?"
•Make sure your conversations include a good cross section of your target population. Loading up your schedule too heavily with managers and other senior people will virtually guarantee that you'll miss pertinent information from rank-and-file members of the organization.
•Make sure that all "undiscussables" are fair game for honest dialogue. To make the point, introduce a pertinent "undiscussable" into the dialogue yourself.
•Be especially careful not to pull rank. If you meet resistance by alluding to position or authority (yours or your sponsor's), you'll drive the resistance underground where it can do more harm.
•Listen with empathy. You may not agree with the resistance, but at least try to understand it. Help people know that they're being heard and, most importantly, respected.
•Make sure your culture doesn't punish people who disagree with "management." A change-friendly culture explicitly welcomes dissent as a sign of the critical thinking that fuels improvement. (After all, you are challenging the status quo or you wouldn't be championing change.)

Resistance is covert or overt, concealed or transparent. A critical part of a change-friendly environment is getting inevitable resistance out into the open so you can address it. Only when you understand people's concerns can you work to find common ground. Unless and until you make it safe to disagree, you won't have a chance of engaging people's heads, hearts, and hopes.

Rodger Dean Duncan is an expert on leadership development and strategic change management. Since he founded Duncan Worldwide in 1972, his clients have included senior executives at major companies in several industries and cabinet officers in two White House administrations. His new book is Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance. Follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Tom Bech]

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