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People will resist change: Here’s how to approach it

Blake Lindsay

Implementation and electric power expert who helps major utilities and merchant power companies design, implement, and sustain large-scale transformations of their performance, health, and capabilities.

David A. Shore

Founding member of McKinsey’s external implementation advisory board and a former associate dean at Harvard University, where he continues to teach.

Eugene Smit

Helps major industrial companies design and deliver large-scale, multi-year transformation programs to strengthen operational performance and profitability.

Leaders who have lived through a major transformation will be familiar with the following scene. You introduce a change initiative to your team members, but before you even finish your presentation, they shut it down, saying it may be a good idea elsewhere—but not here. In our experience, we find that CAVE (consistently against virtually everything) people exist in all organizations. Sometimes there are only a few individuals resisting, and sometimes they make up the majority of the organization. It’s easy for leaders to devote large amounts of time trying to minimize the influence of or directly address these CAVE people. But what if there were an easier way to resist the resistance?

Many executives often ignore or push back against those who challenge them, even opting for a punitive approach to move their plans forward. So rather than asking, “Why are so many people resistant to change?,” the insightful change agent will ask, “Why aren’t more people resistant to change?” After all, why would employees support change if they believed their job security and job satisfaction were predicated on not changing?

The responses we get from our teams depend upon the questions we ask them and the behaviors we model.

Two tales of transformation

One organization embarked on a broad transformation of its operations that would engage all employees in a multiyear program. Shortly after the program began, the organization entered a merger deal in which it would be acquired. This meant most of the leadership team would not stay on to work with the resulting company, and employees at all levels would be affected by post-merger integration. The transformation was expected to grind to a halt.

Despite concerns that the program would wane (or be abandoned altogether), the pending merger accelerated the impact and level of engagement across the organization. And the CEO was instrumental in keeping morale high; by staying involved throughout the transformation, he created incentive for the leadership team to stay engaged as well. As a result, the program scaled earlier and more broadly than originally planned, senior leadership doubled down on their commitment to the transformation, and employees in the organization rallied around the effort—all of which helped capture value of more than 30 percent higher than the original target. Ultimately, individuals at the plant were largely unaffected: engineers from both organizations combined to form one team, most of the executive team transitioned, and employees in the program who showed great initiative received follow-on offers within the new organization.

Another company, this one consisting of a collection of mines, was facing bankruptcy and needed to undergo some radical change. However, as some of the mines were financially stable, employees were comfortable and felt no need to change. Overall, the company struggled to motivate employees at these mines to change their process.

Organizations can often react quite differently than expected when facing change. These instances teach us that employees follow the example presented by their leaders, which in turn influences the outcome of the change program. Thus, when leaders find themselves facing a large contingent of CAVE people, they may ask “Why aren’t more people resistant to the change?” The answer likely lies in the behavior leaders demonstrate, such as welcoming change as an opportunity. In these situations, individuals will not resist because they believe in their leaders. So what can leaders do to achieve a successful transformation and address employees who remain resistant?

Advice for leaders of change

Taking charge through the resistance in a productive and positive way uses three approaches:

Lead with big ears. As a leader, it’s important that you recognize the power of asking “Why?” and other questions, such as “What’s another way this can be done?” By asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers, leaders can gain necessary insights that lead them to the root causes of why people resist such as fear of being replaced. These insights also allow leaders to set the tone for the transformation and challenge their teams to think about how the change could take shape. Therefore employees will feel they are a part of the transformation rather than having change foisted on them. Behavioral science suggests this shift in perspective can encourage employees to commit to change.

Shake things up. People who are comfortable in their jobs are generally resistant to change. Why fix something that works? Leadership’s job should be to motivate employees to embrace change. One way to do this is to shake things up. Some uncertainty will make employees more willing to consider new and different ideas. For example, organizations can rotate in new leadership, re-organize, or bring in outside expertise to bring a much-needed new perspective. Indeed, the goal is to jump-start the desired change by making another change.

Set high aspirations. Lofty ambitions can provide many employees with purpose that may be missing in their day-to-day. Challenging teams to undertake alternative ways of doing things keeps them engaged throughout the change effort.

The path to a successful transformation is never easy. But leaders who adjust their reactions to internal tension and ask the right questions will find that change management can offer an opportunity to engage more effectively with team members and gain a new perspective.

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