Managing Change: Defining Resistance

This is the first article of a 3 part series on change management.

I get asked all the time how I manage resistance to change. I also get told that this is something I’m good at, and seem to always get assigned to projects that either have very challenging stakeholders, or are facing terrible resistance problems that need fixing (don’t even get me started on the ones where they think a change manager might be a good idea AFTER they’ve implemented and it’s been a complete dog’s breakfast and/or they have zero adoption!). So here’s a 3 part summary of everything I’ve picked up along the way (often the hard way — please, learn from my mistakes) about how to identify resistance, why it happens, and how to counter it.

If I had a dollar for every time…oh wait that’s my job…

Firstly, A lot of the existing literature on managing resistance to change only ever refers to resistance amongst impacted employees or frontline staff. What I’ve experienced over and over again is program sponsors, middle managers and leaders who are supposed to be helping implement and champion the change are also guilty  — big time —  of change resistance. Customer facing staff are usually open to change, and are acutely aware of their position in the corporate food chain and what the consequences of resisting change are. I’ve had sponsors distance themselves from their own transformation programs as soon as things start to go bad (hanging the project team out to dry — not cool!) and managers in key change leadership positions actively undermine projects because they were just so wedded to the old way of doing things. So don’t go thinking resistance happens only in certain groups — to be an effective change leader you need to keep an eye out for resistant behaviours from everyone you are dealing with, not just the frontline or impacted teams.

Another thing I feel I really need to point out is a lot of the time a person is not actually resisting the change itself, they are resisting something else, it could be poor project management, communication, and many of the other factors described later. Before throwing a ‘resistant to change’ label on someone firstly consider the statements they are making and where they might be sitting on the change cycle. Someone who says “Over my dead body will this system go live!” (Yes, someone said that verbatim, and hey, we implemented, and that jerk is still alive, and gainfully employed) is probably deserving of the label. People who are asking questions, providing constructive feedback and pointing out possible issues are not — it means they are thinking about how the change is going to work for them, their teams and their customers.

I once worked on a project where a stakeholder kept asking for a demo of the new system. Instead the project manager kept giving her a new version of the same PowerPoint pack as she thought a demo would raise too many questions and questions are hard. The stakeholder got frustrated and annoyed and in turn became very suspicious of whether or not the new system would meet her requirements. The project manager came to me and said ‘hey, she’s being very change resistant we need some change management up in here please.’ I was frustrated too, as it seemed so obvious to me that if the stakeholder was asking to see a demo of the system that actually means she had accepted the change and wanted to explore how it was going to work for her.

The ‘resistance’ the project manager described was actually a negative reaction to the project’s poor stakeholder management and communication with her. So instead of ‘change managing’ our stakeholder, I coached the project manager to build her understanding on why providing a system demo now was important. Doing it early on, in discovery phase, gives the stakeholder the opportunity to have their questions answered and flag/troubleshoot any potential issues, and will repair the trust lost between the business and the project. This will also assist the stakeholder in leading the change within their business unit. If they feel like they are being kept in the dark by the project team, and unsure the change is the right thing to do they won’t champion it for you and may badmouth the project to their teams and managers. Also avoiding potentially hard questions from the stakeholder doesn’t mean they will go away — it means they will arise again right before go live, along with complaints along the lines of ‘we’ve been telling you this for months but no one listened’ which could cause refusal to sign off, poor adoption and delays.

It is the change manager’s role to act as an advocate within the project for stakeholders, customers and end users. Often this means you have to call out poor project behaviours that will have a negative impact on these groups further down the track. It can mean having some difficult conversations and stepping a little outside what some people consider to be the traditional remit of a change manager, but it is for the good of the project and will make your job much easier when it comes time to implement.

It is always important if someone’s behaviour is making your change spidey-sense tingle, to ask yourself the question — am I doing anything wrong? Is the project doing something wrong? Is the way my team or I are going about implementing this change putting people offside? It’s too easy to label someone as resistant to the change without considering or acknowledging how you or your team’s behaviour might be impacting on that person. They might be resistant to you and your crappy project or change management. I’ve had numerous conversations with my project colleagues to ask them to tweak behaviours slightly or try new ways of collaborating with stakeholders. Project people can be just as guilty of being very accustomed to doing things a specific way, and sometimes need to flex their style to suit a particular situation or stakeholder group. It’s hard to acknowledge something the project has done has put someone offside or damaged a key stakeholder relationship.

Ok, now that the pre-rant is over, let’s get into some formal stuff.

What is Change Resistance?

In short it’s any behaviour that serves to maintain the status quo, when change is imminent. Resistance to change can take the following forms:

Passive aggressive behaviour– such as accidentally on purpose ‘forgetting’ to do something, procrastinating, being sullen or resentful, displaying a negative attitude or making negative comments

Avoidance — includes not showing up to project-related meetings, consistently cancelling and rescheduling meetings, not returning calls, being ‘too busy to chat’ when you see them in the office, actually running away when they see you coming (yes it’s happened and I draw the line at following someone into the men’s toilets), taking extra sick days, increased absenteeism

Defiance — outright refusal to carry out tasks or follow new processes.

Hostility — this could include outward displays of anger, aggression, or bullying behaviour

Sabotage– Not following instructions or carrying out tasks correctly, ensuring tests, and pilot results are skewed, then using it as reasons why the change won’t work. Failing to report issues — so they can be resolved by the project team — instead letting them fester and create negative noise and further drama.

With the exception of defiance and maybe hostility, a lot of people may be doing these things unconsciously (especially sabotage) — ie they don’t really know they are doing it. So as a change manager or leader you need to be very careful about how you approach people who are displaying these behaviours.

In part 2, I’ll discuss why resistance to change happens and how to manage it.

This article first appeared on Casa de Cambio and has been republished here with permission.

Cover image: Shutterstock

Related articles

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Sign up to our newsletter

Get a weekly digest on the latest in Talent Acquisition.

Deliver this goodness to my inbox!