Resistance to Change in the Workplace – What’s the most effective way to deal with “fools?”

For many years, I had a reputation in the workplace for “not suffering fools gladly”. It was my thing; my brand and I loved it. I reasoned, “Why on earth should I suffer a “fool” anyway? And why gladly?”

One day, in the middle of a particularly tough transformation change assignment many years ago, I learned some valuable lessons which caused me to review and reassess my definition of a “fool”. To me a fool was a person who, deliberately or otherwise, put up “unnecessary” barriers and resistance to “common sense” or rational initiatives and ideas. I realised then that my definition was not only subjective but deeply flawed and dare I say, arrogant! People are different, unique and complicated; their motivations, values and perceptions are different and what may be “common sense” to one may not necessarily be so to others. All of us know this of course, however, how quickly we forget when it comes to how we expect people to embrace and adapt to change. The truth is, in business and people transformations, there is no such thing as universal common sense and resistance are rarely rational. Until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you don’t really fully appreciate where and how the shoes pinch their feet. So, if you are leading a transformation/ change initiative and faced with (shock! horror!) “foolish” or “irrational” resistance to the change, what do you do?

My advice is to approach this with sensitivity and empathy. Below is a couple of things that I have learned. I would be interested to know how that compares with your experience.

Be Thankful!

Yes be thankful for the resistance to the change because resistance equals passion. You can’t resist something that you don’t care about. Apathy is far worse. The challenge, as can be seen from the funny video clip below, is how to turn the resisting passion into supporting passion for the change initiative.



Embrace and make friends with the resistance

Treat this as a “meet and greet session” whereby you and your team actively make yourself visible to the pockets of resistance to the point where people feel comfortable to tell you the overt (rational) reasons for their resistance to the change and you can assess for yourself, their covert (beneath the iceberg, emotional, “irrational”) reasons too. Once you know the root causes of the resistance, you are better placed to know how to effectively address it.

Show and Tell

This involves responding to each and every root cause resistance to change that you found above – both verbally and more importantly, behaviourally. This one takes time and effort and more time and more effort and sometimes you will feel that you are banging your head against a brick wall. But persevere and be smart. Begin by paying particular attention to the resistance that is emanating from the “powerful” people whose conversion to the cause and adoption of the change will create a significant impact that you can harness to tip the resistance of others. Be creative about your definition of powerful people and include senior leadership, people with knowledge and credibility/ reputation power as well as people with access to a diverse cross section of networks. Remember too that actions speak louder than words so take care to acknowledge and ideally unblock any obstacles (e.g. skills, structures, systems) to the change and ensure that people who display the right behaviours are publically recognised and rewarded.

Show humility

Humility in a transformational change agenda is ultimately a sign of strength and involves openly acknowledging that whilst you know the “why” for the change, you do not know all the answers for the “how” yet and that you are open to a revision of your ideas and plans in the face of better ones. Humility is a combination of being firm and yet letting go of the “not invented here” mentality.

Be Authentic

Ultimately, you have to believe in the impending reasons for the change and in the benefits that it will bring – else don’t even bother! Managing resistance to change is difficult enough without having to fight your subconscious too. Being authentic also involves publically acknowledging that some things will need to change for the worse (e.g. uncertainty) in order to get better and that some people will lose out in a variety of ways, either temporarily or in the case of job losses, permanently. Incidentally, make sure that you communicate loud and clear exactly what you will also be giving up and/ or losing to get to the desired better state too. Your authenticity will not be appreciated at first and the initial reaction will be to heighten the resistance to the change, but ultimately the sum combination of the sensitivity that you have displayed along the way will go a long way towards breaking down the resistance to change and accelerating the adaption of the change.

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