How leaders can turn resistance to change into engagement instead

By Heather Campbell

One thing you can be sure of, whatever change you’ll lead this year, is that all that change will bring lots of resistance along the way too. No change worth doing is achieved without some push back.

Resistance can seem like nothing other than a hindrance to progress. But there is a far more positive side too and, when well-managed, resistance can be the key to getting a far better outcome.

Having led major change in organisations myself, and having coached many leaders on introducing successful change, here are my top three tips to turn resistance round.

1. Recognise that resistance is good news

Well, not ALL resistance – I’m not THAT much of an optimist. I’m talking about the early signs of resistance here. You see, if there is no resistance, it’s a sign that people either haven’t recognised that the change is really going to happen or that it is so insignificant, they aren’t interested in it.

If it’s the former, you aren’t even at the starting line of the change. If it’s the latter, you might ask yourself if the change is worth your effort in the first place 😊.

So, resistance is a sign that people are realising that change is happening and that it is significant enough to care. Therefore, when you get that initial push back from people; when people start to question the change; when people start to challenge you…welcome it. It shows that people’s shift in mindset and understanding is beginning. The status quo is becoming unsettled and that HAS to happen if there is to be any change.

Leader action at this stage of resistance: welcome the resistance. Ask questions. Find out more about the resistance.
Leaders must not: assume that lack of resistance is a sign of acceptance.

2. Resistance is a way of people expressing their fears

When something is good for us, we embrace it. We celebrate it. When it isn’t, we see it as some kind of threat.

The simple fact is not all change is going to be good for us; that means there’s a threat inherent in that change. And every change, whether it’s good for us or not, means some kind of upheaval. Even minor upheaval represents a level of threat to us simply because, despite our desire to believe otherwise, humans don’t like upheaval much. Upheaval threatens the status quo and we like to protect the status quo.

When we are experiencing upheaval, or are going through some kind of change where the impact isn’t positive for us, we will experience a sense of threat. That threat translates into fear of some kind. At the mild end, this might be experienced as concern. At the extreme end, this might translate into worry, stress and sleepless nights.

So, when people resist the change you are introducing, recognise this as a great opportunity to learn about and understand their fears. When you understand their fears, you can address their fears.

Fears can seem unmanageable and random but, ultimately, they tend to fit into three main categories:

  • The change doesn’t make sense to me
  • The change isn’t good for me
  • I don’t have any control over the change

Here, leaders need to listen and understand – what is the resistance all about? Which one of the above categories does the change fall into? How can you respond constructively to the fears you are learning about?

Leader action at this stage: listen, listen, listen; seek to understand.
Leaders must not: get defensive, ignore or punish

3. Resistance is a sign that you need to relinquish control

The problem with resistance, especially when it’s very evident and powerful resistance, is that it tends to result in the leader tightening their grip and reducing the number of choices they give to the people who are resisting. This helps leaders to feel more in control.

It doesn’t work!

The more you control, the more you disempower others, the more they feel threatened, the more they will resist.

One of the most effective ways to reduce resistance is to give people greater control and choice in relation to the change. This can seem counter-intuitive. Why would you empower the resistance?

The great thing is, increasing others’ choice and control doesn’t increase resistance. It actually increases engagement.

As human beings, we like to have control and choice. The more choice and control we have, the more there is to engage with in a positive way. There’s a big caveat here, though. We like to have control and choice over things that matter to us. We hate to waste our time on having to make decisions about things we don’t care about.

The problem is the decisions that people most care about are often the very decisions that leaders most fear letting go of. Fight this urge – you’ll know what really matters to people if you listen as per point (2) above. So, from that, find ways to give more control and choice over these areas. Even if that means you are giving away choice and control over some of the juiciest decisions.

Do this wisely of course. Set people up for successful decisions by sharing data, information and rationale. Don’t hide the crucial details or fudge issues. Be open and transparent.

You’ll find that, even if people don’t love the change itself, they will welcome the trust you show and the control you share.

Leader action at this stage of resistance: give people more choice and control over decisions that matter to them
Leaders must not: pretend to give choice and control about decisions that have already been taken – people hate this and they see through it every time; try to get people to take decisions about things they don’t care about – that’s just an irritation and will breed more resistance.

So, there you have it. Three key ways to deal with resistance that work.

  • Welcome it
  • Explore fears
  • Share control

If you are working through change right now and would like to discuss how you can overcome, manage and minimise resistance, get in touch. Happy to share ideas.

And, always remember, observe with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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