Resistance to change starts at the top. The most common reason companies have trouble responding to an obvious need for a game-changing program is a traditional reluctance to look outside current experiences.
During my business travels, I have found that executives with a great deal of industry experience can find it hard to question their treasured beliefs.
In the face of undeniable evidence that change would be beneficial for their organisation, many would prefer trying to squeeze out yet another increment of efficiency from their current set-up, believing it to be safer than striking out in new directions.
Across industry, this comes as a stinging condemnation of management teams, often wrestling with dizzying levels of change.
The most common reason companies have trouble responding to an obvious need for a game-changing program is a traditional reluctance to look outside current experiences.
These experiences are what define their business – definitions which have evolved over the last fifty years.
The questions that create the definitions:
- What is our business?
- Who are our customers?
- Who are our competitors?
- How do we differentiate?
- Where do we take value out of the value chain?
Over time, we get industry convergence around these important questions. Because managers go to the same trade shows, read the same industry journals, use the same consultants – and even swap managers with other companies in the same industry.
In short, they are all eating from the same buffet.
Eventually, this leads to strategies that are impossible to differentiate. This signals a clear need to pull apart accepted beliefs and implement major changes.
Defining a new set of change programs is only the first step in a long journey.
Making changes can be hellishly difficult – and can sometimes feel like walking in quicksand. People can be extremely indirect in how they resist change.
Even if a change program makes perfect strategic sense, some managers may perceive the required shifts as a loss of self-rule, power, and control. But rather than specifically expressing this anxiety, they overtly support the CEO while secretly looking for imaginative and underhand ways to resist.
What would you think if you heard comments like this? Would you think that everything is going well?
- “Let’s collect more data to make sure that we’re not going to regret these changes later.”
- “I don’t see how we can free people up to work on this. We all have day-jobs to do.”
- “I believe this is absolutely the right thing to do, but shouldn’t we put the tools in place to help people adjust to the changes first?”
Don’t confuse these apparently ‘innocent’ questions with cooperation. This is passive resistance in action.
There are two reasons why this kind of opposition can be tough going.
First, the pushback often sounds very logical and reasonable. It’s hard to argue with a manager who feels there are more urgent things to do, especially when that manager is closer to the action than you are.
Second, because passive resistance is disguised as logic, it’s not always clear where resistance is coming from.
Does the manager truly believe the proposed change is not in the best interests of the business? Is there some personal or unconscious reason why a person feels threatened by the change?
A tendency to avoid confrontation
People tend to avoid confrontation with authority figures. As a result, passive resistance is more common than most of us want to admit. Sometimes that’s good, because it helps senior managers to pause, avoid rash actions, get more buy-in, and handle complex emotional issues.
But, most of the time, passive resistance chips away at a manager’s ability to make effective changes quickly. On the other hand, by charging ahead, can put managers on shaky ground, only to discover later that their team was not fully committed.
If you feel you are dealing with passive resistance, there are four steps that can help to remove the blockage:
1. Ask yourself if you are fully committed to the change
Pushing through resistance takes a lot of emotional energy – so be sure that the benefits will dwarf your efforts.
2. Dig for the genuine reasons for opposition
What lies beneath the ‘logical’ arguments and delaying tactics? Responding with even more logical arguments is a losing proposition. It would be easier to teach a dog to tango. Instead, find out what’s really going on. Does your team have doubts about your judgment? Are they scared of their own peoples’ reactions? Are they uncomfortable about how things will work out later? Are they concerned about their competence?
3. Encourage your people to openly share their thoughts, without anxiety
Ask them to imagine what ‘good’ would look like and what it would take to get there? With enough of these conversations, you will build a solid partnership to help make the change, rather than frustrating it.
4. Focus on your teams’ readiness to change, rather than resistance
Provided they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, most people are willing to make changes, so plug into that. Is there one area where the change can be showcased now? Are there some quick wins?
Change must be nurtured with missionary zeal and faith
If you are dealing with resistance from a few CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything), remember that many people are highly-trained pessimists. Force-feeding the truth can cause them to develop resistance toward grasping that truth.
Ask yourself is there more you could do to make your plans stick, by involving more people in discussions about proposed changes; how you could minimise the “walking off a cliff problem”; and how to make your team feel more at ease about their competence?
Change is a form of death. Whatever was before must die, and what comes next must be nurtured with missionary zeal and faith.
We must bury the stuff we are so heavily invested in, before we can move to new levels of success.
Read more about how to organise your business transformation program in our ebook “Are you jumping the gun?”.