How to Manage Resistance to Change

People don’t like change. We seek pleasure, avoid discomfort, and are creatures of habit. In fact, research indicates that the longer something has been around (process, practice, or artifact), the more we like it.

Meanwhile, people who work with change — managing it, being agents for it, coaching others to adopt it — have the job of dealing with resistance to change. But how do they actually do this? 

For starters, a comprehensive literature review reveals the top six sources that are significant contributors to resistance to change:

  1. Reactive mindset, resignation
  2. Deep rooted values and emotional loyalty
  3. Misaligned interests
  4. Too much fast and complex change
  5. Communication barriers
  6. Change values opposite to organizational values

Note what is not listed. Nowhere does it say that people didn’t know what to do or didn’t know how to do it.  Capability to change was captured in the research — but came in at No. 9 in the results.

Conversations on Change

What does this have to do with facilitating change? 

Central to your success in managing resistance is the ability to balance between two types of conversations:

  1. Telling people the what or how of the proposed change. 
  2. Asking people how they see or feel about the change.

Consider a situation in which you are about to have a change conversation with a staff member impacted by a change to their way of working. You have assessed the situation and are about to converse with the employee. Do you tell the employee what to do, providing instruction and direction on what and how to execute the change? 

Or do you open the space for a deeper conversation and ask the employee what they are thinking or feeling? This can turn into a deeper and more open conversation pathway where you invite the person to share thoughts and feelings. All by simply asking: “How are you feeling about the change?” or  “What’s on your mind regarding the change?”

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The Responsive Moment

So do you tell or ask? I call this moment of choice between these two approaches the responsive moment. It depends on what best serves the employee they’re supporting.

You will have to consider whether your advice will likely be being accepted or resisted. Should the employee be ready, willing, and able to receive the advice, then you are free to tell the employee what to do and how to do it. This is how traditional training and communications activities work to support change adoption. It’s also the “sunny-day scenario” where everything goes according to plan. 

But if we refer back to our list of sources of resistance to change, we can see that simply telling someone what to do (no matter how nicely and respectfully) is not going to be effective when people are emotionally not ready for change.

This is when the downward, more open conversation pathway is required. By making space for those resisting the change to be heard and felt (empathized with), you are inviting the resisters into a dialogue to understand their needs further. In other words, to change behavior, you may first need to delve into attitudes, values, identity, and other deeper issues.

Telling people what to do may be required. It may be useful in training and communications at times. But it is insufficient to deal with resistance to change that is rooted in the values and mindset of those being asked to change.

Niall McShane has been a coach for decades. He’s worked with elite athletes up the Olympic level, as a professional leadership coach and change management consultant working across numerous industries, and most recently in agile coaching across company-level initiatives for large corporations all the way down to small companies. He is the author of the new book, Responsive Agile Coaching: How to Accelerate Your Coaching Outcomes with Meaningful Conversations. It is for anyone looking to change the way they work: managers, leaders, and change agents, as well as agile coaches needing insights and inspiration.

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