Leading Change in the Face of Resistance

Mimi Bacilek

Ideally, leaders set and communicate their vision for change. But sometimes the workforce doesn’t want to engage. Sometimes the volume of staff resistance is such that the status quo has a powerful hold on the organization. So what’s the senior team to do when it is essential to create the change, despite the resistance? And how can the HR executive assist those senior leaders? One answer leaders often give is to demand that the staff do it. That may get them some distance, but at best they’ll generate compliance to the letter of the change. They’re unlikely to engage the hearts and minds of the workforce in creating success. As an HR leader you know you want them to gain employee engagement. The question is how?

Create a platform for change. Compellingly help the workforce see that the current state will not lead them, individually or collectively, to success. It will disable competitive advantage or it will lose key customers.

Create clarity of the vision. "Draw a picture" of what success looks like and regularly and routinely speak about it from a perspective everyone can agree on, such as patient safety in a hospital, child welfare in a school system or product quality in a manufacturing environment.

Understand the workforce’s perspective. In most change initiatives the workforce falls into three categories: advocate for the change, adversary of the change and willing to consider the change. It is essential that the leader tap the power of the advocates, address the challenges of the adversaries and mobilize the possibilities of those in the middle.

Create a coalition of advocates. The coalition is a group of leaders and staffers who align daily processes and actions with the leader’s vision. They are advocates either of the change or the leader and hold formal or informal power in the organization. They meet with a frequency that matches the progress (or lack of progress) of the change implementation and serve as a resource to other staff and leaders. The efforts of this coalition create a powerful resource for the leader—s/he can focus on supporting staff willing to consider the change and provide them opportunities for experimenting with it. Often the people in this category number more than half the workforce. A powerful resource. Additionally, the leader can put in place a system for learning from the change attempts and modify the change according to what is learned.

Intentionally engage adversaries. It is tempting to ignore adversaries or hope they come around. The reality: Adversaries can create tremendous pressure against the change. They often make work life difficult for those willing to try the change. A winning technique is to bring small groups of adversaries together to intimately understand their resistance, then address it head on. Resistance usually stems from a very real fear or concern. Correcting a misunderstanding about the change or modifying the change may be required based on what the leader learns. Successful leaders create partnerships with adversaries by addressing the sources of their resistance and gaining their trust.

Celebrate small and big wins. It is tempting to wait for the ultimate success to be achieved before partying. Savvy leaders intentionally create opportunities for small wins all along the way. They reward staff who try as well as staff who are fully successful. They broadly communicate these wins, link the results to the vision and showcase engaged staff with others in the organization.

Leading significant change is not for the faint of heart. By its very nature change is messy and chaotic, and that creates great pressure on everyone to return to the familiar, the status quo. Management consultant Meg Wheatley says this "desire to return to the familiar is a part of the human condition." Savvy leaders take this into account. They are both empathetic to the difficulty change brings staff and true to their vision in patiently and persistently leading the path forward.

First published on Human Resources IQ.