One of the questions that I am often asked is about how to overcome people’s resistance to change. The scenario is all-too-familiar: the leader sees clearly the urgent need for change but keeps running into resistance from key players in the organization. The problem is that leaders often have a very limited collection of tools in their change-management tool chest. As someone once said, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” What to do? In this post, I want to address that question by suggesting some additional tools to add to your collection.
Obligation: This change instrument has the appearance of “strong leadership” but in fact is the weakest type of motivation. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with pointing out our mutual obligations, obligations that we voluntarily accept when we become members or employees of the organization. In fact, humans are the only animals capable of action motivated by moral obligation. But, if we depend solely or too frequently on obligation, without combining it with other forms of inspiration, it soon loses its motivational power and turns instead into a catalyst for resistance. The Apostle Paul referred to the weakness of pure obligation when he addressed the fathers in the church at Ephesus.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord (Ephesians 6:4, NLT).
Instruction: The previous reference brings up an important point about resistance. Some resistance arises simply because people don’t really understand what you are trying to do. Remember, the very nature of leadership is the ability to see things a little sooner than others see them. As Robert Greenleaf once said, “This is the LEAD in leadership.” So, a leader must exercise patience as he or she dedicates time for instruction, the building of a common understanding of a desirable future to be pursued, and a less desirable future to be avoided.
Prediction: The leader creates an image of the future that is powerful enough to raise people out of their natural state of inertia. There are two types of prediction: that of a desirable future and that of a disastrous future that will be the consequence of following the status quo. Both visions are important and should be used in combination with one another.
The change does not have to be comfortable in order for people to adopt it. I don’t go to the dentist and allow him to drill into my tooth because I find it a pleasant or comfortable experience. I do it because the alternative is worse. One of my faculties as a human being is the ability to envision that worse experience before experiencing it in reality. Leaders often make the mistake of trying to describe the change as being more comfortable than it really is and this can produce feelings of resentment and the loss of trust in the organization. It is better to be honest about the difficulties of change while, at the same time, communicating the importance of that change.
Demonstration: This is a strategy where the leader organizes an inner core of first adopters to model the change for the rest of the organization. First adopters are those individuals who are not normal in the sense described above. These people thrive on change! Sometimes the leader can take a team of first adopters and do a pilot project that demonstrates the benefits of the change for the rest of the organization.
Request: All leaders understand that an inspired follower is better than is an obligated follower. We all want others to truly buy in to the change and not just go along with it because they have to. We understand that commitment is better than compliance and that it can make a real bottom-line difference for the organization. Some people’s concept of “strong leadership” does not include the simple technique of urging followers to embrace the change. Yet, this is a powerful tool because it is a confession by the leader that he or she needs the commitment of the followers in order to be successful.
Participation: The more a leader can include followers in the process of creating the vision for change, the easier it will be to implement the change. People support what they own. This is a fundamental truth about human nature (it is also the fundamental flaw of socialism, but that’s another topic). Following immediately behind that principle is the principle that people own what they consciously create.
I’m sure this list is not exhaustive. Change is complex because people are complex. The more tools we have in our change toolbox, the more likely we will be to find the ideal combination for building a successful change strategy.