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Resistance to change: A guide to difficult conversations

Workplace change is a daily challenge and navigating it effectively is a skill. Managing change as a leader isn't just about implementing new processes or technologies; it's also about addressing resistance, uncertainty, and fear of the unknown.

This week, we'll dive deep into the art of managing resistance to change in the workplace. From understanding the psychology of change resistance to mastering communication strategies that inspire buy-in and collaboration, this article will equip you with the insights and tools you need to lead your team through periods of transition with confidence and resilience.

A dandelion in a field, with the words, "Difficult conversations often arise when leaders implement changes that are unpopular or disruptive."

Resistance to Change: What's going on?

Difficult conversations often arise when leaders implement changes, especially when aspects are unpopular or disruptive. Sometimes you are the initiator of the change and sometimes change initiates outside of your sphere of control or influence as a manager, so while you're expected to help manage your team through the change, you may not have much ability to affect the underlying decisions about the change.

Resistance to change is a natural reaction when people feel apprehensive, threatened, or uncertain about the proposed changes. Resistance can manifest in various forms, including skepticism, opposition, or passive-aggressive behavior and it's helpful to understand the psychology behind it.

Fear of the unknown plays a significant role in driving resistance to change. The uncertainty and unpredictability that accompany change can trigger feelings of fear and apprehension, as individuals grapple with the unfamiliarity of new circumstances.

Loss aversion, the tendency to focus more on what one stands to lose rather than what they could gain, can further exacerbate resistance. People are naturally averse to loss, whether it's the loss of familiar routines, roles, or even perceived status.

Cognitive dissonance often comes into play when individuals are confronted with information that contradicts their existing beliefs or attitudes. This internal conflict can lead to resistance as individuals struggle to reconcile their preconceived notions with the need for change.

Status quo bias, the inclination to prefer the current state of affairs, can act as a barrier to change, as individuals cling to familiarity (even if that familiarity is itself uncomfortable or suboptimal), even when change may ultimately be beneficial.

Cartoon drawings explaining the psychology to change.

If you're leading the change, you may want to consider following Esther Derby's model of Change by Attraction. It's a strategy for fostering organizational change that focuses on creating an environment where change is attractive and naturally embraced by individuals within the organization instead of being imposed from the top down. This model emphasizes building trust, fostering transparency, encouraging autonomy, and creating a sense of purpose and can help organizations inspire individuals to willingly adopt change, leading to more sustainable and successful transformations.

If you're not leading the change, you're still expected to bring your team along through it, so the following framework is for you. It can help reduce resistance to change and provide you with confidence in how you approach any related challenging conversations.

Prepare and Plan

  • Understand the change: Make sure you're equipped with data and talking points about what is driving the change, what the expected outcomes will be, any timeframes and next steps, and how success will be measured. Work with your leadership, if necessary, to understand what is within your spheres of influence and control.

  • Understand your own emotions: Whether this change has already been announced and you are finding out at the same time as your team or you are the one implementing the change, the first step is to manage your own emotions and reactions to the change. Your goal is to help your team flex their resilience so mirroring that behavior is your starting point.

  • Understand success signals: Within your sphere of influence, identify signs that will show if the changes are moving things in the right direction (and the wrong direction). These can be qualitative or quantitative KPIs (key performance indicators) that can be measured against a baseline made pre-change to provide post-change signal. Most change results in an initial dip before the benefits are realized, so if possible resist the urge to adjust until there's a few months of data to analyze.

Establish Rapport and Trust

  • Build rapport and trust: Start conversations by building rapport and establishing a positive atmosphere. Demonstrate empathy, active listening, and genuine interest in understanding people's perspectives. Reinforce trust by being transparent, honest, and authentic in your communication.

  • Provide validation: Acknowledge any concerns and feelings expressed and show your understanding by paraphrasing their concerns, "I think what I'm hearing is [paraphrase]. Am I understanding you correctly?".

  • Know your limits: You can be curious and ask questions without having all of the answers. Be explicit about what you know and what you need to gather information in order to answer. Take the time to prepare responses and talking points to address concerns effectively, then set up another time to discuss what you've learned.

Communicate the change Effectively

  • Articulate the vision: Clearly articulate the vision and objectives driving the proposed changes. Explain why change is necessary and how it aligns with the organization's mission, values, and strategic goals.

  • Highlight benefits: Frame the change in a positive light, emphasizing the potential benefits and opportunities that the changes will bring for individuals and the organization. Illustrate how the changes will address current challenges, improve performance, and create new possibilities for growth and development.

  • Acknowledge what is and is not changing: Even in the midst of major change, often there are many areas that aren't changing. By highlighting those areas, it can help folks find stable ground, reducing some resistance. By being explicit about what is changing, it can help to alleviate some of the anxiety produced by the unknown.

  • Seek input and feedback: Be clear about the extent to which any input and feedback could affect the proposed change. If you cannot directly influence any adjustments to the change itself, do not lead your team to believe otherwise. Doing so will discourage future feedback and serve to demotivate folks from engaging further. Having said that, your role as a manager is to help your team navigate the situation, so be clear with them about your motives and intention, encouraging input and feedback broadly, but also specifically within your spheres of influence and control. Solicit their ideas, suggestions, and concerns to ensure that their voices are heard and valued.

  • Understand any resistance: Take time to listen in order to understand if there is resistance and if so, the reasons why. Ask open ended questions and practice active listening without judgment. Identify potential concerns, fears, or uncertainties that people may have about the proposed changes.

  • Address concerns: Address concerns and objections raised by individuals about the proposed changes. Listen actively and demonstrate a willingness to adapt. Provide honest and transparent answers to any questions. If there's information you have which you cannot share, you can say, "I don't have a satisfying answer for you yet on that, but I'll share what I can when I can." If you don't know the answer to a question, don't make up an answer. You can say, "I'm not sure what the plan is for addressing that, but I'll see what I can find out to share back with you."

  • Manage expectations: Manage expectations by being realistic about the challenges and uncertainties associated with change. Acknowledge that change can feel uncomfortable, be difficult and may require time and effort to adapt, but emphasize the support and resources available to help individuals navigate through the transition.

Provide Support and Resources

  • Offer training and development: Provide training, coaching, or mentorship to help individuals build the skills and capabilities needed to adapt to the changes. Offer resources and support to address any gaps in knowledge or expertise.

  • Provide emotional support: Offer emotional support and encouragement to people as they navigate through periods of uncertainty and transition. Recognize and validate their feelings, and reassure them that their concerns are heard and valued.

  • Empower champions: Identify and empower change champions who can advocate for the changes and support their implementation. Provide them with the necessary resources, training, and authority to drive change initiatives forward effectively.

Follow-Up and Monitor Progress

  • Follow up: Check in after the conversation to reinforce key messages and commitments made during the discussion. Provide updates regularly on the progress of the changes and address any emerging concerns or challenges.

  • Monitor progress: Monitor progress on the implementation of the changes and evaluate their impact on individuals and the organization. Gather feedback and insights to identify areas for improvement and adjustment.

  • Celebrate successes: Celebrate successes and milestones achieved through the change process. Recognize and reward individuals for their contributions and achievements in embracing and supporting the changes.

Managing resistance to change in the workplace is challenging, but with the right investment up front, during, and post-change leaders can reduce friction and encourage acceptance. Creating the conditions that allow individuals to openly ask questions to reduce the unknowns, better understand the change, and contribute to the decisions that affect them can create an environment that fosters trust, better performance, and meaningful growth for all.

You have the tools to lead your team through periods of transition with confidence and resilience. If you'd like support on your journey, I help leaders go from overwhelmed to confident so that they can lead with clarity, make impactful decisions, and inspire their teams to achieve extraordinary results. Reach out today to set up a complimentary consultation.


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