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5 Steps For Dealing With Resistant Employees In Times Of Change

You can listen and empathize, but you can't budge when it comes to your values or the company's.

5 Steps For Dealing With Resistant Employees In Times Of Change
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Most good leaders know to lead by example, modeling the sorts of behaviors that reflect their own and the companies' values. That much is textbook leadership, and done right, the majority of employees will follow that lead, even when it means changing. But a few won't. They’ll resist—sometimes indirectly and sometimes right out in the open. For a variety of reasons, some employees see any sort of change as a threat.

These five steps can help leaders address resistance in their ranks in a way that squares with the deeper values underlying the changes they need to see through.

1. Don't Take It Personally

First, take a deep breath. Exhale. Now do something—don't wait. It starts by recognizing that even your most recalcitrant employees don't necessarily have it out for you. They just don’t want to go where you’re asking them to. Their resistance isn't about you, it’s about them.

Usually, that doesn't make it any less frustrating. But you'll only be able to manage things from here on out if you stay calm the entire way through. That might mean deferring a conversation for a few hours until you’re in a state of mind that's less antagonist and more ready to coach, listen, and explain.

2. Listen, And Say What You've Heard

Your next job is to present what you’ve heard and observed in a calm, nonjudgmental manner, without assigning blame. You’re presenting factual information. You’ve seen your resistant employee's behavior and noticed how it isn't aligned with the larger values driving the changes everyone needs to make. Maybe you've even received feedback from others about others to this effect. Present those observations in a straightforward way.

Don’t focus on your team member's attitude or beliefs—whatever you perceive them to be. You might have an impulse to understand their motivations, but those ultimately aren't relevant. The needs of your team and the business take precedence. And to safeguard those, you can't afford to care what your employee may believe! That isn't a matter of throwing empathy to the wind—it's just about recognizing that their observable, tangible, measurable behaviors are more relevant. And it's those resistant behaviors you need to change.

To do that, you need to offer evidence of your employee's resistance so they can understand that it's been noticed and how it's impacting the rest of the team.

3. Be Understanding

Here's where empathy does come in. You need to understand your team member's perspective without letting it overwhelm the situation. You can listen without agreeing with everything someone says. Give them a forum for expressing their concerns or fears about what's changing. Reflect on what you’ve learned from them, helping them feel heard.

4. Patiently Stand Your Ground

Even as you hear each other out, you can’t budge. As a leader or manager, it's your job to make sure every team member of yours is fully on board. Don't just communicate to them that the rules have changed—they know that, and that's why they're upset. Instead, explain why there's a new standard in place and how it matches your team's values.

As you do, you need to make it clear to your employee that you can't let them off the hook. There’s no being "kind of on board": Each of your team members either demonstrate their complete values alignment or they don’t.

5. Map Out A Plan

Finally, your job is to give the resistant team member a chance to get realigned. Be specific about the behaviors you expect as well as those you won't tolerate. The main thing to agree upon is the "why"—the baseline "values standards" that everyone will be held to going forward. Finally, candidly explain what will happen if their resistance continues and why you'll have to take the steps you describe.

What if your resistant team member doesn't agree to your plan? What if they don’t see the values alignment you're asking for as important in the first place? Well, if they can’t fit in, you need to help them out—out of the team or even the organization. You’ll do so kindly yet firmly, explaining, "This is no longer a good fit for you or for us. Let’s work together to transition you out of the team as quickly and smoothly as possible."

Same goes for if they threaten to quit: You might say, "That’s certainly an option. If you're unable to embrace our team's values and behaviors, that might be the best option for you." As a leader, you won’t judge their choice, but you can't budge on the core values your team and organization rely on—including, and especially, during times of change.

Adapted from the award-winning best-seller, The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace by S. Chris Edmonds. It is reprinted with permission.

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