Resistance is a 4 Letter Word

Apr 14, 2014 in Uncategorized by
Resistance is a 4 Letter Word

I have often had the conversation with leaders in organizations around the “resistance” that they are running into with change. All too often when leaders encounter anxiety, doubt, concern about change, they “explain” it through the cliche “people resist change”. We fall into the approach of moving quickly to identify areas of resistance and people who are “resistors” to be able to “deal” with them effectively.

This is a huge mistake – resistance to change doesn’t exist.

When we classify peoples’ reactions to change as resistance we are actually setting ourselves up for failure. What people are really reacting to is uncertainty which almost always stems from a lack of information, education or experience.

Using a label like “resistant to change” often seems useful because it allows people around us to quickly and easily understand what we are talking about. Yet, what we often don’t realize is that when we use labels, they tend to change the way that we think about and perceive things. The word “resistant” has a specific connotation around consciously and actively working against something. Once we begin labeling specific people as “resistant to change” our words are saying that we have decided that how they are acting is not in reaction to outside influences that can be worked on, but it is a part of who they are, the problem is their character (i.e. Fundamental Attribution Error). Even if this is not true when we first say it, using the label repeatedly will begin to change our perception of the people and most definitely influence how others perceive them as well.

The result of this is a negative mindset towards people who show concern, anxiety or trepidation around the change. This negative mindset is the antithesis of what is needed in the situation. When in this mindset most leader’s actions actually reinforce the concerns that the people have. Even if we try to hide the negative mindset, it comes through. We tend to not spend time with the “resistors”, reinforcing or at least not dealing with the lack of knowledge and increasing the fear of failure. When we do interact with them, their concern, questions and challenges to the change often reinforce this mindset. We miss opportunities to learn about real concerns or challenges because we label them as “resistance”.

Instead of labeling people as resistant, we need to see it for what it really is – a sign that something is missing or needed in our approach.

Repeat The “Why” And The Goals Until You’re Hoarse
One of the first things that is almost always missing in some respect is information. As leaders, it is often obvious to us that this change will bring huge benefits to the company, group and individuals. We have been in numerous conversations daily discussing the positive outcomes, the path to get there and the probable challenges. Yet, very often we fall into the Trap of Knowledge – we have talked about this so much within our leadership circles that it seems like everyone must know this by now. It becomes difficult to place yourself back in the spot where you didn’t undertand the change. Unfortunately, the rest of the people in the organization haven’t been in any of those conversations and so they haven’t heard the information repeated over and over again.

A CEO that I coached told me once of a realization that he had around communication to his company – “If it is something important, you have to repeat it over and over again until you can barely stand to hear yourself any more. And even when you get to that point, you will still have people coming up to you thanking you for saying what you did because they have never heard it before.” This is exactly what is needed when undertaking a large change. People need to hear the reason behind the change, the expectation of successes from the outcomes of the change and the path that we will be taking to get there over and over and over again.

Help Them See How They Will Be Successful
Once people have begun to understand and internalize the reasons and goals for the change, the question almost immediately moves to: so what does that mean to me? This is the next critical step – to help people see how they fit into this picture of the future and how they will continue to be successful in that picture. This has to be very personalized. Individuals have built up their skills and knowledge in order to be successful in the current environment and the new environment created may require other skills and knowledge that makes a person less successful. Also, the changes may seem to threaten a person’s job, status or power in the organization. It is critical to help people see how they can be as successful or (even better) more successful in the new environment. This will allow them to confidently move forward and support the change.

Create The Support Needed
Knowledge is not enough though. They may see and believe that the change will be successful and even see their place in it, but if they don’t see specific tangible changes around them that support the overall change then we are setting up a environment where fear of failure starts to sneak in again and the cost from the change may outweigh the benefit for our people. The things that must be considered are:
– Explicitly create time and space for people to learn about, experiment with and grow into the new environment
– Swap out old rules/expectations/policies with new ones to support and encourage the new ways of working
– Change the physical environment to make the new ways of working easier
– Provide education and training to support people being successful in the new environment

People need to have the time to be able to effectively go through this change. They need to try new things, fail, learn and then try again. They need to feel that they have the space to get to the point where they can be successful. That is why it is critical to give them that. When going through a change, prioritize the change so that it displaces some other work. Ensure that people see that other work is being pushed off to focus on the change.

Once people have space for the change then start to tackle the existing rules, policies, and structures that discourage or make the new ways of work hard. They are out there and way too often we simply assume we need all of those policies that we have collected over the years. A change should be like a spring cleaning. All of those rules and policies should be pulled out from the back of the closet and examined. Most of them are probably like the clothes in the closet, ill fitting and outdated for the new environment that we are trying to create. Leaving those in place will most definitely ensure that the change will quickly start to regress back to the old ways.

Provide Experiences That Reinforce Positively
Updated rules, environment and education helps people feel like they have a strong chance of being successful, but the “truth is in the pudding”. People must experience others being successful within this new environment to see that it is safe and then have similar experiences themselves. This is often the hardest part because as a leader it is very easy to derail the whole change simply by continuing to informally and subconsciously encourage the old rule and behaviors. There is also the trap of reacting negatively when people step out of their comfort zone and into the realm of the new environment and make some mistakes. This will not only reinforce those peoples’ discomfort with the change, but will provide a very clear message to the rest of the organization that there is a slim chance that they will be safe and successful in the new environment.

This is so critical that often we explicitly seek out these opportunities and spend time beforehand thinking through positive, reinforcing actions and reactions to circumstances that will probably arise. Thus ensuring that people are not only hearing that things are changing but having positive experiences around those changes – especially when they are expecting the experience to be negative.

We absolutely can’t get around the fact that change creates a situation of uncertainty and that can be disconcerting. Yet, we as people are naturally curious and want to explore and learn new things. We can get over the concern and trepidation of uncertainty if we feel safe. Safety comes from:
– Understanding the reasons for the change, the expected outcomes and how we will get there (repeat, repeat, repeat)
– Being clear as to how each person can still be successful (or better yet, even more successful) in the new environment
– Acknowledging the effort that it takes to go through change (changing approaches, making mistakes, learning) so trading off some other work or expectations to free up time and energy
– Using some of that time to educate and train people and give them the active support they need to be successful
– Changing the explicit and implicit rules so that they reinforce the new ways of working rather than the old
– Ensuring that people have positive experiences in the new environment with the leaders that reinforce the new ways of working and acting

It is our job as leaders to provide that feeling of safety so that our people can be energized and excited for the new successes that will come from the changes that are occurring.

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