“Energy flows where intention goes.” Rhonda Byrne
Okay I get it, if there is one aspect of our work in Change Management that leaders zoom in on, it is the need to deal with ‘resistance’ – with people who are making noise, slowing things down and generally not getting on the band wagon. Leaders I work with often ask about the “Resistance Management Plan”… I get it, it’s a ‘pain point’ for them and some change methodologies have trained us all to focus on this. However, I cringe all the same.
This is most unfortunate…it might even be irresponsible (even while it works almost as well for selling Change Management as the 70% phantom failure rate).
Hey listen, resistance is real but it is rare. Seriously. Think about it. How often have you gotten to the point in change where someone really understands and disagrees with it? Oh but wait, I am getting ahead of myself …
We often jump to the conclusion that the ‘noise’ in change is ‘resistance’ when the reality is that sometimes it is not and treating it as such does more damage than good.
When is ‘noise’ really ‘resistance’?
Firstly, yes I am trying to be provocative. No Change Management practitioner worth their salt would be so dismissive of stakeholders raising questions and concerns as to call it ‘noise’. So called ‘noise’ is a gift and a far better scenario than subversive silence.
However, long before people can resist, there are many transitions. If we wait to engage until they have decided that they are opposed to the change to ‘deal’ with them, then we have failed. Yes, and by ‘we’ I mean agents and sponsors.
Before anyone can resist (and by anyone I include all the members of the project team who also need to ‘understand, align and commit’ but that’s another post) one must understand (and, by understand I mean fully understand the current state, the challenges / opportunities, the impacts and the future state) and one must also evaluate whether the current plans enable everyone to be successful in the planned future state. If that sounds like a lot, well it is. It takes time to figure out and process … and it is often still in flight when the first communications are issued (another issue for another day).
So what is the nature of the conversation in the early stages? I get a lot of mileage out of Daryl Conner’s “Eight Stages of Building Commitment” available here. Much of the conversations that need to happen are about exploring Understanding and progressing through Positive Perception and into Experimentation (or Checking Out).
What you will notice in the chart in Daryl’s blog is that one doesn’t get to “Rejection” (which is where real Resistance starts) until one passes Understanding and a decision on Positive Perception. Everything preceding this is all about trying to figure out whether one can get behind this change.
And, this is the key, the interventions leading up to this point are very different than the interventions that must come after it.
Please re-read that last sentence.
Leaning in vs Checking out
Most of the interactions we should be having are all about getting the attention of targets, sharing information, helping them process information, surfacing and resolving their questions and concerns (some which will be legit and need to factor back into solutioning), helping them consider new mindsets and behaviours and to develop the new capabilities and proficiencies.
As long as we are all participating in conversations (even tense conversations) then we have forward momentum. It’s actually when people are reading their phones, not showing up for meetings, not attending training etc that we need to start worrying.
We need Sponsors on real resistance
At various points it becomes clear which targets are leaning in and have momentum and which don’t. With those that don’t, deeper conversations are required to uncover why. Sometimes Change Management practitioners can do this and sometimes we need our Sponsors to work with us.
As we dig into these symptoms and get to root causes we might uncover real resistance … i.e. individuals or groups who either will do the very bare minimum (from ‘lip service’ to ‘going through the motions’) or those who will actively campaign against the change (sometimes transparently and sometimes subversively, and often politically). If this sounds serious it is.
Sometimes we need Sponsors to have conversations with individuals. Often it is about re-contracting … “yes, when you arrived this your role was … now we have to adapt our business and the current role requires …” (keep in mind you may well want your Human Resources on this kind of change). This conversation can go along the lines of “If you want to stay here this is what we need. If this is not for you then I’ll help you find another opportunity”. Great leaders will do this will with empathy. Sponsors must be clear on the consequences they are prepared to apply. Change Management without consequences has no ‘teeth’.
If the ‘noise’ is political that is a whole different game. Another post altogether.
If not “resistance” then what?
Why not focus on what we really want? What we are really aiming for is understanding, alignment and commitment (thank you Conner Partners where we lived and breathed this).
If we talk more about “building commitment” then our attention focuses on the steps and interventions necessary to increase positive momentum. I have found this to be far more powerful. On average, maybe I have been lucky, I have found that most targets are interested in the well-being of the organization. They understand the relationship between their individual success and the success of the enterprise and (increasingly these days) they are used to the notion that ‘things change’ (i.e. they are not as anchored as they used to be). Sure they still expect to be engaged (and we really should be engaging them more than we do) but they also accept that there is so much going on that sometimes they will be brought in when the organization is ready.
In the early stages we can meet people where they are and walk with them. Sure we need to be concurrently building a ‘resistance plan’ but most of them will never need to know about that.
The point really is understanding, alignment and commitment … and adoption and proficiency. This is the vein of gold that we need to mine.
Actually, it’s deeper than that really … engagement is the engine. When we really respect and value our targets we listen to them…well no, really we engage with them. It’s a two–way dialogue. But we must attend to that, we might prioritize that.
How does focusing on resistance damage engagement? Well firstly it’s about neglect of our priorities. It’s about focusing on the ‘squeaky wheel’ instead of the valued colleague. And when we neglect something long enough it becomes clear that we are not walking the talk. If people really are ‘the organization’s greatest asset’ then we should act that way. Otherwise integrity is called into question.
The problem compares to the concept of “weapon focus”, where a witness cannot identify the perpetrator but can describe the weapon in detail. If we focus on resistance we will be prepared for that and fall short on what we really need. Hence the quote about “Energy flows where intention goes.”
Why this and why now?
Well I am a bit passionate about this, can you tell? It comes up fairly regularly in my practice and recently I accepted the blog challenge from a friend and more respected practitioner Dr. Jen Frahm. Some others have published already – much good thought provoking grist – search on #ChangeBlogChallenge.
So, what say you?
Where do you prioritize your intentions and energy?
Want to know what thought leaders think?
Check out several other responses to the Resistance Blog Challenge here.