Back to change -- dealing with resistance

How do you deal with people who resist change because the changes weren't the ones they wanted? Such people can drain hours of productive time from an entire organisation.

A number of readers sent me their thoughts in response to my recent column, No one fears change. Most agreed with the concepts I put forward, but there were requests for more specifics. One reader in particular posed the following situation.

"My question," he wrote, "is how do you then deal with resistance from people who do not agree with the changes simply because the changes were not the ones they wanted? These people were involved in both the communication and feedback process, yet because they do not like the change, they are going to resist. These people can drain hours of productive time from an entire organisation by dragging their feet, back biting, and generally producing a negative attitude that others have to work with."

Before I attempt to address this reasonably common situation I’ll start with a statement of belief. The best change management practices in the world will never reduce the difficulty of implementing unwanted change to zero. A manager’s task is to position an organisation so that any change is clearly necessary and desirable.

When we fail in this, and sometimes there is no way to make a change palatable, then the problem gets difficult.

There are two issues here. The first is there is no gimmick guaranteed to create 100% agreement with all our decisions or beliefs. Regardless of the fervent desires of management, the right to disagree (resist) is irrevocable. If you think it shouldn’t be this way, then would you want a government perhaps, to have an infallible method of forcing you to agree with all its decisions?

Paradoxically, if you’re in disagreement with the above paragraph, and insist I’m wrong…well, you’re demonstrating that your right to disagree is irrevocable.

There is, however, a useful but Machiavellian post-change strategy; some describe it as unethical. It’s known as "self persuasion." It involves giving the person most against the change the responsibility of convincing others to embrace the change. This is surprisingly effective in getting people to change their minds. (For more on self-persuasion, see The Age of Propaganda by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson)

The second issue raised by the reader’s scenario is not just someone disagreeing with a change, but that they are actively working to sabotage the implementation process. Again, it is worth noting that this is not necessarily evil behaviour. If city officials decide, after consultation, to build a nuclear waste dump in my backyard, I will resist, protest and attempt to sabotage the process. But sabotage is not a behavior that any organisation, city or company, can tolerate once they’ve decided to move forward in a particular direction.

Here are some additional post-change strategies that can bring a few more laggards on board; none of them come with a guarantee.

We know not everyone agrees, but… In any significant change there are those who disagree. If this difference of opinion isn’t respectfully acknowledged, then we create a strong win/lose situation. In an attempt to shift this to at least compromise/compromise, emphasise that even though they didn’t get their solution implemented, their input shaped the final decision. This strategy is even more effective if it contains at least a small germ of truth.

Publicly acknowledging key dissidents for their constructive input, (even if it wasn’t that constructive), and stating that you’re looking forward to their cooperation and a rapid implementation, serves two functions. It communicates that all opinions were factored into the decision and that cooperation from those dissenters is expected.

Call their bluff (if you can afford the cost). If you are certain the change chosen was the correct one, and that other approaches would fail to solve the problem, then let them try it their way. Once they’ve failed, they may be more open to reason. Especially since they’ve now proved to themselves their way of doing things wasn’t effective.

The last resort. All organisations consist of people working together to achieve common goals. Those who totally disagree with a proposed change, to the extent they are sabotaging, by action or inaction, the completion of those common goals, have demonstrated that they’d rather leave the team.

Management has the responsibility of ensuring that these individuals understand the consequences of both overt and covert sabotage. Deliberate sabotage should be a one-way ticket to an exit interview.

De Jager is a champion for both rational change, and reasoned resistance.

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