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304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
Monday to Friday: 7AM - 7PM
Weekend: 10AM - 5PM
Resistance and overcoming resistance is the heart of change management and leadership. It is, arguably, THE job.
A change management support campaign is a project with typical project risks (e.g., Will things happen on time? Will resources and support be available when needed? Will outside factors confound plans?) As a supporting part of an underlying project, it inherits some of those risks as well.
The real change management risk is resistance. Reduced to its raison d’être, change management is finally about avoiding, eliminating, and overcoming resistance to change. Were it not for resistance, there would hardly be a need and certainly no challenge for change management. Without resistance, the necessary informing and educating (training) could be handled by the project manager and domain experts. But that’s hardly ever the case.
Dealing with resistance is straight-forward: communicate, educate, influence. For most circumstances the remedy will be to apply the techniques and tactics of one or several focus areas. If the tactic works, excellent. If it doesn’t, try another.
Establishing that (i) there may be or is resistance and then (ii) figuring out its cause is the challenge and core of this focus.
In this Playbook, we consider how to practically manage resistance risk. For simplicity, there are three, sequential parts. The first (A) is part of preparation. The second (B) is the heart of resistance management. The third part (C) is remediation.
There will be resistance. The question is whether it will be significant or not. With proper preparation, you will stamp out as much as possible, avoid a lot of what comes through, and successfully beat back the remnants. You’ll do this because you will have anticipated where resistance is likely to come from and why.
Proper preparation starts by understanding and being ruthlessly clear about what specific changes to behaviour and attitude will be required of whom. It’s the resistance by people who have to do something different that is concerning. Others, not specifically affected, that might vigorously and vocally resist are agitators. They need to be dealt with by others more equipped to make the case for being a “team player” in an organization. Agitators are an irritation.
Fulsome preparation considers the culture of the organization, specifically of those parts that are affected. A quick historical survey of previous changes or attempts to change—especially among those affected—would be instructive. This survey might reveal how resistance in those cases was (un)successfully averted or overcome. Lessons learned documents are a good starting point.
Understanding the mission and the circumstances, the final part of preparation is to moot out two things.
These need not be elaborate, but must be adequate to objectively trigger response. It is way too easy in the moment to change your assessment of the situation viz. risk. Set triggers when cool heads prevail. (Like determining a maximum eBay auction bid.) Then, when a specific resistance risk is triggered, you will have your first, second, and maybe third response Moves ready to go.
At this point the project is deploying and the change management activities are in progress. At a regular or ad hoc resistance risk management meeting, some evidence of resistance to change becomes clear. This step is part of the B–>C ongoing cycle to deal with resistance.
Fortunately, if preparations were made, this section is actually fairly easy. It consists of matching observed resistance to the anticipated resistance register and triggers to identify and exactly—or nearly—match what’s going on to what you expected. If done correctly, once the resistance has been identified and isolated, the response protocol is provided. The artful chore at this stage is to assess and customize prepared response(s) to suit the actual situation. It is likely that the realized resistance will be like but not exactly what was anticipated (different people, slightly different issue driving the resisters, etc.). Massage what you planned.
Then, assign it to be done. This is key to rapid response. Having an identification protocol, triggers, and prepared responses is important. Having a specific person assigned to the response will ensure it is more likely to be effective should it be needed.
Nike nicely sums up this step: Just Do It™.
Having confirmed some realized resistance and assessed it against what was anticipated, you have a prescribed response to your diagnosis. The response may have a plan A, B, and even C. So, whomever was assigned to fix the problem needs to go forth with plan A.
Plan A, B… Z will be tactical variations to the change management plan. Maybe it’s additional explanation or information (communication); maybe training or coaching for skills; or maybe it’s an issue that warrants escalation. There should be relatively little to design and develop anew. The response protocol prepared in advance, with escalating response options, allows for this stage to iterate should resistance requires stronger medicine than that being given. But, again, that should have been mostly sorted out during the preparations.
Resistance management sounds straightforward. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge and warn that you will probably be wrong as often as right when you set responses to your anticipated problems in the first stage. At some point you will very likely end up wondering what to do.
Do not look too far afield too quickly. While you may end up having to rethink something new on the fly, chances are your initial thoughts and plans were close… just inadequate. Look at your other resistance-countering tactics: what factor is now in the current experience? Did the resister maintain his/her reason but change the rationale? Did the resister concede but find another reason to resist? Did the nature of the resistance change? There is a good chance you have the solution but your diagnosis is a little astray.
Resistance risk management and getting past resistance is the raison d’être for change management. It’s not complicated and the tools for the job are available. The magic is figuring out which to use and being deft in deploying it. Those come with experience.
The three Ps of overcoming resistance to change are:
Pretty simple and, in fact, recommended in best practice training. Let’s define and describe them.
Persuasion is usually implied more than stated in proper company. That’s unfortunate. Ultimately the objective is to get others to see things your way and to follow your lead. That is persuasion. The means are immaterial so long as they’re ethical, appropriate, and honest.
Change rarely, if ever happens quickly. It is a process that takes time and repetition. Not only do you need to find the right way to “persuade” them (maybe facts maybe emotions, maybe…), you have to connect with them.
Persistence is the active part of patience: trying and trying again. You have to persist. You have to stay with it until the goal is accomplished (THEY change), not just until you have performed the task (YOU told them). Eventually, change will happen. It always does.
These 3-Ps are the fundamental core of overcoming resistance. Anything else is a derivation or gimmick. Luckily, they are valuable for just about everything else you might be called upon to achieve in life.
The 3-Ps are such universally applicable drives, they are even expressed by non-humans. A sheepdog, for instance, persuades by getting a few “early adopters” in the herd of ewes (the “change champions”) to start moving the desired way. The dog keeps gentle pressure on the herd from every direction, moving around from left to right and back so they keep moving. When one straggles (the “resister”) the dog moves close to communicate. When the sheep moves, the dog responds; when the sheep pushes back the dog lets it move and uses that energy to gently turn it the right direction. This dance goes on for a while. The dog patiently and persistently persuades the herd to the desired path. At no time does this change manager bark or snap at those who are to change.
Dealing with resistance is at least a 2-step process: (1) understand or unearth, then (2) address and assuage.
There are literally infinite reasons for people to object and resist. Broadly, however, these fall into five classes, ordered from most to least troublesome.
Remember, not all individuals resist change and some may even embrace it. Change agents and leaders have to understand at least some common reasons why people may resist change in some way on some level. There are many; only a few follow.
Resistance starts in—or at least passes through—the mind. It’s not necessary to be a psychoanalyst, but being aware of active psychological phenomena can’t hurt. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking that influence decision-making and perception. Humans are chock-a-block with these. For example:
Change agents and leaders should design change initiatives to align with these and other psychological and cognitive factors to address (potential) resistance to change.
Change always impacts individuals at a deeply personal level—even at work, and addressing these issues with empathy and understanding can be critical in managing and mitigating resistance to change.
 If you find yourself needing to develop, let alone design something beyond your existing arsenal of tactics, maybe more preparation is in order.