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Dealing effectively with change resistance

Resistance to change is natural, so embrace it. Oaklin’s James Kearney shares key insights into why resistance happens, and how to successfully navigate the challenge.

"There is no shame in planning for resistance within a complex transformation, but few people seem to do it."

Resistance to change is an inevitable feature of all change transformation projects, regardless of how great your change approach and execution are. Resistance is a natural, human response to a changing environment. It is the role of good change managers to understand and alleviate resistance, for the success of the organisation. Indeed, that is why change management methods such as ours include a resistance management planning exercise.

There is often a temptation to skip resistance preparation activities with rationale such as “we know our organisation” and “the change impact is minimal”. Skipping these activities can be seen as cost and / or time saving, but a lack of planning very often manifests itself in increased resistance management efforts further into the programme. This means that resistance management analysis and execution are reactive and performed whilst also juggling other in-flight change activities. Inevitably, any small cost and time saving achieved earlier in the project by skipping planning activities evaporates very quickly. We recommend to all clients that they spend time undertaking the due diligence (including change readiness, business readiness and change impact assessments) within the ‘definition’ phase of the programme. This will ensure resistance hot spots that might derail your change efforts are clearly identified. 

Once these potential resistance areas have been identified, acknowledge these publicly in a project plan and risk log, as well as planning specific interventions within a resistance management plan. There is no shame in planning for resistance within a complex transformation, but in our experience, it is rarely done well. This is perhaps because, in an ideal world, there is a perception that the presence of a change team means that the change is being embraced fully. The reality is somewhat different to the ideal.

Here are some of our top tips to ensure your resistance management activities are effective and have maximum impact:

1. Make it a priority
People want to know that their views are important. When resistance to change occurs, recognise this, acknowledge peoples’ concerns formally and make them feel that they have been heard. A lack of acknowledgement of resistance often leads to a ‘watercooler effect’, whereby rumours gain traction and resistance grows, regardless of whether the rationale driving resistance is valid or not. As such, it is vital that resistance management activities are treated as a priority and are initiated before rumours are heard.

One of the reasons often given by change teams for not communicating around resistance is that, in the moment, the team are unsure of the complete or full answer. That’s ok. Own the narrative; say what you do know and commit to communicating more in due course. That is better than no communication at all.

2. Make it logical
Be aware of the hierarchies, politics and culture within the change environment. All organisations are subject to complex politics and political nuances - understand these and work hard to navigate them successfully.

One of the more typical traits is that team members struggle to embrace change until their immediate manager does so, however good they themselves think the change might be. So make your resistance interventions logical. Before trying to change the minds of the team members focus on the team leads. Spend time to get their buy-in. Only once you are making progress with them, should you start looking to change the minds of their team members.

3. Make it appropriate
In order to manage resistance, interventions should be appropriate to the audience. Change is as much about getting emotional buy-in as it is about building skills and ability, and the way in which you tackle resistance helps to build this buy-in. For example, if the head of the team that is principally impacted by a change shows signs of resistance, get a face-to-face session to explore their concerns, ask the sponsor to get involved and take time to understand the teams’ concerns. This level of engagement is not always possible so be pragmatic in working out when to expend your efforts. Crucially though, make sure you tailor your resistance tactics to the individual; a senior manager or key influencer is unlikely to be satisfied or bought into the change having received a cursory email.

4. Make it specific
As mentioned, it is vital that people feel they have been heard. One of the ways to do this is to respond specifically to the concern or issue they have about a change. Directing a person or stakeholder group with a specific or niche concern to a stock-answer FAQ page – while time efficient – will not solve the issue. Spend an appropriate amount of time getting to understand the concerns of the individual or group; reflect on their change experience to date and think about how you might better take them along their change journey. If you can solve their specific issue then do so; if not, consider whether this is a gap in the programme approach that needs to be filled.