Leadership & Management December 18, 2019

How to overcome resistance to change

- By Javier Fernández Montijano, Training Consultant

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday and the monthly sales meeting is just about to get underway. Carlos, the manager, is excited about presenting the new CMS to his team. After all, it will help to improve customer data management and strategic sales analysis.

After his energised presentation, Carlos is left disappointed. The excitement he expected is nowhere near level with his own. Instead of enthusiasm, he now faces apprehension.

— "But why do we need this new software?”
— “The current system still works fine.”
— "Impossible. Who came up with this?"

The Eight Stages of Change

Carlos’s experience is probably one that most managers can relate to. People are generally resistant to change and to fully grasp why would require an entire psychological dissertation. Today, we’ll stick to simpler answers.

To understand why it’s tough for us to accept and assimilate change, we need to first differentiate between how change is handled based on its origin.

a) As initiators of change, we are proactive in introducing change.
b) As discoverers of change, we are reactive to change that’s presented to us.

In this scenario, Carlos’s team members are discoverers who are reacting to a change initiated by Carlos, an initiator of change. As they adjust, they’ll be going through eight different stages of change:

1. Denial: "This can't be possible."
2. Anger: "This won’t work out."
3. Nostalgia: "Everything will be different."
4. Fear:"What will it be like in the future?"
5. Negotiation: "What advantages are there? How can we adapt?"
6. Decision: "I can live with it."
7. Readjustment: "Personally, I would do it this way."
8. Commitment: "It works well. I like it."

But change management is subjective. Not everyone spends an equal amount of time in each stage and neither do they necessarily do it in this order.

Given that, managers need to understand the different stages of this change curve to help their teams get through the stages properly and as quickly as possible.

The Challenges of Managing Change Well

A manager’s success depends on the success of his/her team and proper change management brings about benefits for him/her, the team, and the company as a whole. As a manager, here’s how to properly lead a team through change.

1. Understand that each stage is part of the natural process of change acceptance and assimilation.

2. Let each team member advance through the different stages at his/her own pace and in his/her own way.

3. Personalise your approach and adapt your behaviour according to the different stages your team members are in. It is futile, for example, to expect commitment from a team member who is still in the “rejection” stage.

4. Avoid shortcuts and do not attempt to get your team members to skip a stage. Someone who’s rushed through stages in the change digestion process may find it more difficult to reach or complete the decision stage and may ultimately have to revert a step (or more).

This last point is especially crucial because not everyone is transparent about what they think or how they feel. We may assume that someone is already in the “commitment stage” when he or she may actually still be in the “fear” or “nostalgia” stage. So what may seem like a shortcut to begin with can be costly in the long run.

“As managers, we must adapt our behaviour to the stage our team member is in.”

Managing Change Well In The Decision Stage

The manager’s behaviour during the “decision” stage is particularly vital to managing change well. This is where he or she is required to balance his/her role as a “participative manager” and an “executive manager.”

When balancing this management, managers should ask themselves:

● What risks are there for the team (and the company) if I’m not sufficiently assertive in the “decision” stage?
● If I don’t properly manage my team member’s change process at this stage, what stage will he/she revert to?
● What can I request from him/her?
● Who makes the final decision?
● What’s making him/her stall?

“Sometimes the manager is also the "discoverer" of change and has to balance this situation by creating the right conditions for his teams to accept and assimilate this change in the best way possible.”

Helping team members to reach the decision stage and guiding them beyond it isn’t enough. During this crucial stage, as a manager, you need to be assertive. Otherwise, you risk team members:

1. Jumping back to a previous stage and entering an endless and toxic loop in which they bounce back and forth between stages without arriving at the “decision” stage. This may be harmful for them and the entire organisation.

2. Failing to see that the decision to accept change lies with them. As a manager, you’re responsible for maintaining the balance of management and creating the optimal conditions for this acceptance, but the ultimate acceptance is reached by your team members.

3. Hindering the team’s progress. If a manager allows team members to stall, they will spend months jumping from stage to stage and may even sabotage – albeit unintentionally – the team’s efforts and progress. Watch out for those with a “yes, but...” attitude and those who fixate on the tiniest of issues. Through a desire to avoid confrontation, unassertive managers may unwittingly make an undesirable, negative impact.

4. Causing conflicts. This harmful loop will inevitably lead them to be particularly conflictive – with themselves, with the company, and perhaps even with their families due to a lack of control over the new reality. Their unacceptance will cause them to yearn for the “old.”

Leading Change From Within As An Exemplary Manager

Here’s another scenario.

Antonio is the manager of a company and has to inform his team about the top management’s decision to change the order control system. Here’s how he delivers the news:

“The top management has decided to change the order control system. It seems pointless and I don’t agree with the decision. But I have to implement it, so here we are.”

This isn’t an uncommon attitude from managers when addressing changes in the company – especially changes that weren’t initiated by them.

Managers are often – if not always – tasked with relaying messages of change. In doing so, not only are they "discoverers" of change, but they’re also responsible for establishing the right conditions for their teams to accept and digest this change as efficiently as possible.

Antonio’s attitude is counter-productive, unmotivating, and definitely not one of an exemplary manager. How can Antonio expect his team to accept the change when not only is he unconvinced by it, but he has also vocalised his reluctance?

Managers are the first ones to go through these stages of change. As an exemplary manager, your job is to first go through the stages yourself and be comfortably in the “settings” or “commitment” stage before informing your team of the change and guiding them through the process.

In other words, first exercise the power to accept and guide change over yourself before exercising it over others.

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” — M. Gandhi


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