The “Second” Kind of Resistance to Change



September 1, 2016

The “Second” Kind of Resistance to Change

Most change management efforts are focused on countering resistance and building advocacy for the end-state of the change. For instance, we often deal with resistance to new technology, redesigned business process, or new operating models. But, what happens when stakeholders are optimistic about those end-states, but are resistant to the way the change is being implemented? This “second” kind of resistance happens when stakeholders instead reject your messaging, the implementation approach, or your sponsor, but still support the end goal change. Here are a few examples of this phenomenon and suggestions for how to respond:

  • Scenario: I don’t really understand it. Stakeholders will tell you the change sounds like a great idea, has a noble goal, and is something we really need. But, they confess they have no idea what the end-state is actually going to look like when you’re finished. So, even when the goal and the benefits are obvious and exciting to stakeholders, what the real future-state will look like is often still a mystery in their eyes. This can be especially true when introducing new technology or business processes that are conceptual at the start of the transformation and not yet fully defined.


  • Solution: Keep it simple, use analogies for complicated concepts, and get someone from the stakeholder community to sit with you and translate technical terms or concepts. Part of the problem may be the overuse of jargon, especially technical terminology. Don’t say “integrated messaging solution” when you mean we’re moving to MS Outlook. Whenever possible, put communications in the vernacular used by stakeholders and illustrate the solution in the user’s operational context. Also, this can be an occasion where a graphic might be a more effective medium to communicate the future state. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.


  • Scenario: I don’t like how you’re doing this. Change deals in the human dimension. People don’t like when change is imposed upon them. You may hear feedback from stakeholders such as “I’ve not been included, consulted, or involved.” Or worse, you might hear stakeholders say that “You treat me like I’m stupid.” These kinds of comments may be indicative of gaps in the communications and engagement components of your implementation approach. In essence, the issue may be the approach you’re using to achieve the change vision, and not necessarily the end goal itself.


  • Solution: Increasingly, change managers are taking a more democratic approach to change management activities. In this sense, there is a move to involve stakeholders more fully in the design of solutions and, particularly, in the application of change management. This approach means that rather than imposing change on stakeholders, they instead become engaged in creating and living the change. Such an approach can help alleviate resistance that may be coming from how you’re implementing the change.


  • Scenario: I don’t trust you! In this case, your sponsor may be the risk. Clearly if you’re hearing comments around a lack of trust in your change leaders, it means somebody got burned before and there’s some unfortunate history there. Your sponsor is the face of the change and if they are a source of mistrust and resistance, you have a real problem. Sometimes an individual can be the tangible focus of resistance even if there’s more hostility built up regarding organizational cultural issues that are personified by the sponsor. Again, stakeholders might like the goals of the change, but they don’t necessarily like the leaders of the change.


  • Solution: The obvious solution is to change the sponsor. This, may not be a palatable solution because that sponsor might truly be the right person for the job (they know the solution, have the bandwidth, and are skilled at getting things done). As an alternative, you might consider introducing some other faces for the change. You can deploy change agents/change ambassadors/change liaisons who can supplement the sponsor by being additional visible faces of the change who could counter any resistance to the personality of the sponsor. Your sponsor still needs to be the leader and the one who can marshal resources for the change, but by supplementing with change agents you can put other faces in front of stakeholders who can mitigate this risk. You may also need to examine what the organization’s history has been regarding transformation efforts and whether those have soured employees.

Take a very close look at the resistance or change challenges you face in your transformation. You might be surprised by the nature of stakeholder pushback. A few simple adjustments to how you are implementing the change management efforts might easily pivot things in your favor.

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