Change is a mysterious subject and change managers have their views on what is the best way to make change happen. I doubt if anyone who has ever been involved with change management would say that all of the change initiatives that they have rolled out have been hugely successful. Every programme at some point or other comes to a point where the employees "resist the change". Now that expression in itself is an interesting subject, because it implies that the problem is with them – those being changed, rather than with us – those seeking to change.

Don’t try this at work!

I remember having a discussion with a fellow change manager in large manufacturing organisation where we were rolling out a huge change initiative. Let's call him John. One day we were having an exchange of views as to the different strategies and tactics for successful change. I asked him "what is your solution to dealing with employee resistance?" His response almost left me speechless – well almost. He replied: "to push more!" I couldn’t quite believe it, but what John was suggesting was that if there was resistance then the way in which to deal with it is to push harder. This to my mind is the ego of a leader gone out of control, someone who really doesn’t care for the thoughts and feelings of others, just as long as they are able to get their way.

Ok, I have taken my pills now and have had a nice cup of decaffeinated coffee and have OHMed for ten minutes to dissipate the stress, but seriously though, is this really the best way to roll out change? If you have read the last paragraph and you are on John's side then I ask you to stop for a moment to think about what you are seeking to achieve.

A reframe for resistance to change

Now I am not naïve enough to think that hostility towards change hasn’t existed in some of the change efforts that I have managed, but realistically speaking real resistance to change is often quite minimal.
In my world I don’t believe that the majority of people are actively resisting change. What might happen is that we, as change managers, may translate their observable behaviour into what we might label as resistance. For instance, think back to the last time someone asked you a question in relation to a particular change effort. Did you interpret their questioning as a sign of being difficult? Sometimes you might do and sometimes not, and it may depend on whether they are jabbing their finger at you using an aggressive tone of voice at the time. However a healthier means of approaching questions is to take the approach that experienced sales people take. A good salesperson is taught to understand that when people ask questions this is actually a buying signal. Asking questions is a person's way of gathering the information necessary to help them make their decision. For this reason I tend to never label any behaviour that I observe as resistance to change, instead I call it dealing with a person's valid concerns or if you would like to continue with the sales analogy, handling their objections.

So what's the big deal?

If we consider for a moment that it is perfectly valid for someone to have a different viewpoint to us, and I am going to take a leap of faith here and believe that as a change manager you are respectful to other people's points of view. We have to be in that person's world to appreciate their experience. For many people change can be scary because it means dealing with uncertainty and this may surface all sorts of irrational fears and beliefs. This highly emotional state can cause people to act in unpredictable and not very resourceful ways. The best change managers that I have met in my career are unlike John who I mentioned in the start of this article. No, the best change managers are those who demonstrate empathy, the ability to get inside another person's shoes and really know and understand what is going on for them. Now to many people, especially the Johns of this world, this may sound like a pink and fluffy approach and this has no place in the cold hard face of engineering or manufacturing, but you would be wrong. I have sat with engineers who have cried (privately of course) at the prospect of their world changing, so the question I ask you is how effective do you think the approach of beating some more over the head would be? Making change happen is about dealing with the humanness of the people whom the change will be affecting and to disregard their humanity is only one short step in my view from showing them the finger.

Some suggestions for moving forward

So in summary my suggestion is when you are rolling out change a key assumption to make is that not everyone is going to be "sold" on the idea. So as a change manager it is your job to:
1) Identify the concerns of the people for whom the change will affect;
2) Clarify that you have correctly understood the concerns;
3) Flush out the remaining concerns and re-clarify your understanding before addressing ANY of the other concerns (this avoids the YES-BUT game) ;
4) Check to identify that there is enough trust between you and those people before handling the concerns otherwise you will waste your time as they probably wont believe you;
5) Respectfully address the concerns using equal portions of logical and emotional language;
6) Request their help in moving forward making the change appear small and help make them feel big;
7) Provide a space for follow-up to allow people to come to you privately for any other concerns
8) From your toughest cynics will come your greatest advocates if they are handled properly; so recruit more advocates and make your life easier for rolling out effective change.

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