Resistance is a key topic in change management. Once a client of ours said: I hired you to learn how to overcome the resistance in others. But guess what? I think that by doing this, he would have missed great opportunities. For me resistance is not per se something to be destroyed, turned around. It is far more: it is stakeholder(s) telling you something about your transformational idea. And your first job is to listen and understand what it means.
“I hired you to learn how to overcome the resistance in others.”
Rick Maurer has come up with a great model to explain the three levels of resistance:
This already shows that every level needs a different approach, but also that not every resistance needs to be broken.
In our experience many people “resist” change because they lack information. Wouldn’t you want to hear more about an idea, before following it blindly? In the business environment as well as in our private live we want people to think for themselves. We want them to make an active choice FOR the transformation we are planning. First level resistance (I don’t understand) is very natural and should be welcomed.
Very often we underestimate the time it needs to reduce 1st level resistance. We would hear from our clients: “I have told them already”. But telling doesn’t mean understanding! Every individual will have different questions, points that need to be addressed. And in today’s time of overcommunication it is not always easy to get people’s attention. So, telling the story once, doesn’t ensure everyone has heard your message, and even less: understood it.
But what about the “I don’t like”? This certainly shows that people are not open to change, right? It shows their lack of flexibility, doesn’t it? While many executives might think that we simply must help people like the change, I think we need to differentiate (and extend Rick Maurer’s Model): there is 2nd level resistance based on constructive criticism and 2nd level resistance based on uncertainty and personal loss.
The people not liking the planed transition might have some very valid criticisms: your employees might not yet have the right skill set, the process will increase the workload for most people, the infrastructure lacks some key elements, etc. Basically, they highlight points that have not been thought of, or stress aspects you might have underestimated.
There is a lot to be learnt here. The best transitions are where very vocal people “resisting” the change are being brought on board. These people are key in a change initiative: they help improve the quality of the change and increase the acceptance of what you are putting in place. Not seeing it as such, is creating power games, where none is necessary.
“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”
When people show 2nd level resistance because they are worried about the impact it will have on their life, we encounter a very different issue. We still need to understand how the change will impact their status in the organization, their private life or their comfort, to try to smoothen the transition for that person. But here our role is a supporting one. And we need to understand our limitation: If an employee loses her job, the emotional resistance is just very normal.
We might provide great assistance, e.g. a rescue company or retraining them, but there is little WE can do. It is the impacted employees that will have to do most of the work to overcome their frustration and accept the new situation. We can show empathy, offer help, but we might not always be able to avoid that the resistance moves in 3rd level resistance: they don’t trust or like us.
As a manager you might have encountered situation where people dislike you: for the way you manage them or because of decisions you have taken (or had to convey to them). There is a lot of truth in the saying: “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” So, finding yourself in that situation, you might feel like, you must overcome a huge wall and it seems like we need to put a lot of work into breaking that resistance. While I think that work is required, it is more at a personal level.
Very often you will mirror the emotions that you encounter. So, this situation will require some reevaluation of how you work with the individuals, how you approach them and what hidden assumptions you have about them: What do YOU do to create trust? Are you always genuine? Do you show confidence in that person? And are you honestly willing and ready to work on the relationship? Overcoming 3rd level resistance is very difficult. And very often drastic solutions might become necessary. But even then, your question should be: What can I learn from it? What can I do, to reduce the lack of trust in the future?
When resistance becomes visible, it is an opportunity. Passive resistance or hidden opposition are almost impossible to address as there is no counterpart to debate and argue with. Welcome any criticism to your ideas, welcome the openness of the criticism and see the opportunities resistance bears for you as a person and an organization: it will help you make the change more effective, more appreciated, more welcome.
But also, it will support you in becoming a better leader in a world that changes often!
About THE AUTHOR
Dr. Karin Stumpf is an expert and long-time consultant dealing with change situations. For over 20 years she has been supporting and advising executives. She is known for her no-nonsense approach focused on practical delivery. Karin is French-German and fluent in French, German and English.