Think back to the last time you suggested a new idea to someone else. It could have been as simple as a new recipe for dinner at home, or as involved as suggesting a new way to solve a complex problem at work. How was that information received? Did people go along with your suggestion, or were you met with resistance that surprised you?
In our Change Leadership and Change Readiness workshops, we often begin by polling the room and asking who thinks that they respond well to change. Here is what normally happens: a handful of hands go up immediately (maybe 1/3 of the room), some people admit that they’re not too fond of change, and most people will say that it depends. People are open to change when it directly benefits them, or better yet, when it was their suggestion. So what is a leader to do when a change coming from the organizational leadership is met with resistance?
Great leaders understand enough about the psychology of how humans respond to change to not be daunted by this very natural reaction. Change can produce fear of loss and defensiveness around the unknown and often our response allows people to dig in even further. If you take their reaction personally, and try to argue with them, you might as well get a shovel and help them dig.
Instead, we need to expect the resistance and get ready to support people through that phase so they can allow the fear to subside. In fact, when it comes to overcoming resistant behavior, there is one simple approach allows leaders to help people move through their resistance:
- Follow up
Here is what it means, in practice:
Surface: All too often, resistance is met with other resistance, and we never take the time to find out why the resistance is happening in the first place. One example that we see all the time is around new technology being introduced. It often appears that someone doesn’t want to learn a new skill because they’re not interested, or they don’t like technology. In reality, they may not want to lose the expertise that they have worked so hard to build. By finding out what they are so afraid of losing (in this case, expertise), we can now work with them to help ensure that that doesn’t happen.
Example: When I heard your comments about the new technology in the meeting, it sounded like you had some reservations. Can you share those with me?
Honor: We’ve identified the root issue, and it’s tempting to jump right into creating a solution. But oftentimes, people just want to be heard. By validating someone’s concerns, we’re showing that we are committed to helping them find a solution that can work for them.
Example: I hear what you're saying about the lack of notice and I get why that would feel like a "plan to fail".
Explore: We’ve found out where the resistance lies and taken the time to honor those concerns. Now comes the fun part – brainstorming possible solutions. You may want to have them lead the conversation and come up with some solutions, but be ready to add in your own recommendations as needed. For example, if someone is concerned about losing their expertise in a specific area by adopting a new technology, you will probably both have ideas about how to get them the knowledge and skills that they need, but you may need to help them in crafting a specific training plan and pointing them to the right resources.
Example: Would it be helpful it we got the team access to a subject matter expert at next weeks meeting to demo or take questions? Is there anything else that would make you feel a bit more confident in trying out the new technology while it's in pilot phase?
Follow Up: We’ve discovered the root issue, acknowledged the concerns by honoring it, and come up with a plan. So, we’re done…right? All too often, this is where the conversation ends. But in order for real change to occur, there needs to be follow up from the change leader.
Example: Can we touch base next week and see how you're feeling about your readiness to move to the new technology?
Finally, don’t be surprised if the resistance resurfaces again – you may end the conversation with the best of intentions, but we are all creatures of habit, and new concerns may emerge as a change is being adopted. If you find that someone has gone back to their old ways and seems to be showing resistance, you may need to circle back to the first step of the model and surface their latest set of concerns.
Remember, people don't fear change, they fear pain. Our job as leaders is to anticipate, surface and mitigate the pain for each individual.