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Resistance Fighter

Without a strategy for winning people over, change agents cannot implement their programs for change.

Once you’ve designed it, the toughest part of any change effort is clearing the next hurdle: the inevitable opposition. You may have put together a can’t-miss program; you may have lined up top-level sponsorship. Those things don’t matter.

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History shows that managers and frontline workers alike will resist your best-laid plan. A few will openly fight it. Many more will ignore or try to sabotage your plan. If you don’t have a strategy for winning people over, you can forget about your change program.

Mark Maletz knows this firsthand. In his role as an independent consultant affiliated with McKinsey & Co. in Boston, he has helped launch more than 75 large-scale change initiatives at such companies as Xerox, American Airlines, and computer giant Siemens Nixdorf. Maletz, 40, transformed himself into a full-fledged change agent while developing large-scale, artificial-intelligence expert systems. His toughest challenge: convincing highly skilled people to let him mine their expertise so he could put it on a computer. Overcoming their resistance was an almost insurmountable task.

“The technology side was by far the easy part,” Maletz recalls. “The change side — the human-dynamics side — was the complex and compelling part.” In an interview, Maletz outlined the dynamics of dealing with people who fight change.

It’s almost a given that in the corporate world, most people, most of the time, will resist change. Why?

People know that historically, there’s very little upside for them — that change itself is rarely for the better. If you’ve been with a company for a few years, and you’ve seen these flavor-of-the-month change programs come and go, you quickly recognize a pattern: Management launches some kind of change effort to great fanfare. Managers talk up the benefits and explain why this program will be good for both the company and its employees. They make promises, but at the end of the day, they fail to deliver. Nothing really happens, and the whole effort seems like a waste of time. Well, it makes sense to resist things that are a pure waste of time.

That’s one kind of resistance. But there’s another scenario: A bunch of consultants analyze a corporate department consisting of 100 people, and they conclude that the company needs just 48 people to do the work. If you’re in that department, one of two things will happen: Either you’ll lose your job, or you’ll stay — and end up working even harder.

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So there’s typically a history within lots of organizations that says, “Change, in the past, has not been good.” And there’s no reason to believe that this time, it’s going to be better.”

So you can count on people being hostile.

You should expect some hostility, but it’s rarely the in-your-face kind. Usually, resistance is passive-aggressive, meaning it’s far more underground: People hear you out, saying nothing that’s overtly negative, but they don’t buy the change program. As soon as they’re alone with their peers, they’ll say something like, “This thing is going to pass, so let’s just keep our heads down.” And historically, they’re often right. The impact of a lot of change never reaches too deep into the organization — and when it does, it’s usually bad.

Other people will say they’re on board, but then they’ll try to kill your effort. Not too long ago, I worked on a change program at a high-tech company, and one of the senior guys sat in meetings with the CEO and claimed to be totally on board. But then he’d go back to his organization and order people not to meet with the change team. He’d say things like, “Make sure that your calendar pushes meetings with these guys out as far as possible. And cancel each meeting at least once before it takes place.”

How do you handle a guy who’s trying to stab you in the back like that?

In that case, we found out about it and confronted him. He blew up and told us that the program was a complete waste of time and that he’d never give it any play. And he was terminated within a month. The message was, “You can come out and say, ‘This is a complete waste of time,’ and we’ll engage you. But you can’t agree that you’re on board and then try to sabotage the effort.”

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Okay, you can expect to take some hits. What should you do then? Hit back?

Absolutely not. You don’t even push people — you pull them. You go out into the middle of the organization and the front lines, you find informal opinion leaders who have very broad networks, and you recruit them to be part of the change process.

We did this at Siemens Nixdorf. One of the people we went after was a very sharp, very young software developer. He had zero formal authority, but people throughout this 1,200-person software unit would come to him for technical help and advice. So if you get someone like him to ally with the change effort, you also get access to many more people within the organization.

If these people are real grassroots leaders, they won’t hesitate to give you a few jabs if they see some problems with the change program. How do you win them over?

You don’t. If you spend 40 minutes trying to get one of these guys to buy into the change program, the message you’re really conveying is, “I’m not interested in listening to you. I just want to sell you.”

Instead, you invest your personal time — you begin to build a relationship and invite the person to engage with you. You don’t want to make a pitch, you want to have a conversation. The symbolic contract is, “I’m offering you a real voice in the process, and in turn, I’d like you to become a voice for the process. If you have a problem with some part of the program, I’ll make a change if I think you have a valid point — or I’ll tell you why that’s not going to be the case.” The important thing is to make it clear that not only will you listen to criticism, but that you’ll be prepared to respond in some way.

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So if you disagree with them, you’ve got to tell them, even if it’s going to hurt you in the short term.

The smart strategy is to always be up front. Think about reengineering. For a while, people tried to claim that reengineering was not about downsizing. And yet we saw hundreds of reengineering efforts that were, in fact, all about downsizing. I’ve never understood why management refused to acknowledge up front that people were going to lose jobs — as if the employees wouldn’t figure that out until it was too late. But in fact, they always figure it out. And then you’ve got people who are cynical and don’t trust you.

Can people’s resistance to change ever be a good thing?

You bet it can. In fact, change agents should not automatically resist resistance — they should learn from it.

I was involved in a change effort to make a high-tech, major industrial concern more entrepreneurial, and someone stood up and said that we’d totally missed the fact that there was no way to find critical resources for entrepreneurial ventures in this organization. And he was right. So we asked him to create an internal clearinghouse that would identify key employees’ functional specialties, so when we needed people’s expertise, we’d quickly know how to find them. Not only did we learn from this guy’s criticism, but we embraced it.

It’s one thing to promise people that they’ll have a real voice in the change process, but how do you deliver on that promise?

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From the very first day, you make the process transparent. I learned that lesson about 15 years ago, when I was working on a change project at a money-center bank located in New York City.

We had a dedicated conference room for the change team. And I started noticing that people would go out of their way to walk by the room. Then it occurred to me that, at some level, whatever information that you send out to keep people apprised of the change effort is slightly suspect. Even in the best cases, people will wonder whether you’re just spinning fiction. But they sense that what’s happening in the room is real.

So the change-team members decided that anyone in the organization could come in and spend half a day with us. We would treat them just as if they were permanent members of the team. The only requirement we had was that any half-day visitor would have to be up to speed on the project. We weren’t going to stop work and give them a tutorial on the change process. This set a tone that made a big difference in employees’ participation level and trust in the process.

What happens when they walk into that conference room and show you that some tactical part of the change program just won’t work?

If you’re going to make the process transparent, you’ve got to be willing to admit when you’re wrong, or when someone else has a better idea. Leaders and change agents should obviously avoid going public every time they screw up. But picking your spots and occasionally admitting that you’re wrong sends an incredibly powerful message that you’re serious about engaging in a healthy debate. And it surprises me how few senior executives are willing to do that. They think that acknowledging even one mistake will make them appear as ineffective leaders, when in fact the reverse is true.

Is there a way to determine whether people have really accepted your change effort — or are fighting it behind your back?

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This is where your project-management skills come into play: Focus on what people are doing, as opposed to what they say they’re doing. If people say they’re with the program, ask them for explicit commitments. You should, in the spirit of transparency, make those commitments visible and ensure that people are delivering on them.

I worked with an insurance company that was trying to create a workplace that encouraged healthy conflict. Now that kind of behavioral stuff is a really hard thing to measure. But we got the company to design a series of interventions that would allow people to experiment with conflict in different ways. By setting up some intermediate milestones, we could track whether people were really making progress.

How can you distinguish between the knee-jerk resistance that comes with any transformation effort, versus a wall of resistance that’s ultimately insurmountable?

You need to be absolutely clear about where you stand with the senior-level people who are backing up your effort. I’ll often have change teams develop sponsorship maps, which track whether key stakeholders continue to provide them with the level of cover that they need to make the effort succeed. If that protection starts to crack, you need to do a reality check and reassess things. Losing your sponsorship is a pretty strong signal that you should figure out why, regroup, and live to fight another day.

Coordinates: Mark Maletz, mark_maletz@mckinsey.com

Change Manual: Real Change Leaders

Change Agent

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An online professor at Babson College and an independent consultant affiliated with McKinsey & Co., Mark Maletz has helped lead change efforts at scores of global organizations.

Change Manual

“Real Change Leaders,” by Jon R. Katzenbach and the RCL Team (Times Business/Random House, 1997).

Change Lesson

“One of the traps that change agents fall into is having too limited a set of role models,” Maletz says. “It’s important to have lots of different templates for leading a change effort.” He recommends “Real Change Leaders,” which gives in-depth advice on all of the elements of change, from shaping the vision to instilling a no-excuses mind-set. The new edition also includes a “Handbook for Action,” which includes ideas and tools for leading change. Best of all, Katzenbach and his six collaborators give plenty of real-world examples of how a variety of leadership styles can get the job done.

Coordinates: $16. “Real Change Leaders: How You Can Create Growth and High Performance at Your Company,” Times Business/Random House, www.randomhouse.com

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