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Turning resistance into commitment


By Dr. Carol McCoy

Imagine you're the new sales and service manager of a traditional company that has been struggling to keep up with competition. You've been hired to create new, innovative products, increase sales, and turn around the company's tarnished service image.

To keep the company afloat, you'll need to make many changes. You know that workers, who feel stretched trying to keep up with their current workloads, will resent needing to learn new products and procedures. How can you get employees to buy-in to the new way?

Constant change is stressful and confusing to people. Have you ever been upset about a change and been told to "get over it"? Leaders cannot demand enthusiasm, support, and commitment. While it may be tempting to tell people to get on board or get out, you may lose good people who could have helped you succeed. People resent being forced to change, and are likely to leave or try to undermine the new way.

Resistance is a normal phase of dealing with change. People who immediately champion a new direction without thinking often become skeptical or resistant later on. Resistance can take many forms -- lack of effort, lateness, absenteeism; constantly questioning decisions, attacking new ideas, or even actively trying to sabotage a change.

While resistance can be difficult, it can also be healthy. Resistance acts like brakes on your car -- it slows down the change process to make it more manageable. It also raises important concerns of people who must carry out the change.

Managers who listen to peoples' objections often get practical ideas that can make the change more effective. Strong resistance can lead managers to re-examine the benefits and real costs of the change and stop poorly planned change efforts.

On the other hand, prolonged resistance can also prevent positive change from succeeding. Turning resistors into change champions can be a key to business success. What can you do to help people who are fighting change get on board?

Remember, not everyone likes change. When faced with the possibility of change, some people naturally look at the opportunities of change while others focus on the dangers.

For people to actively support a change, they need a reason to act differently. As a first step, you need to paint an inspiring picture of a better future. People need to understand the reason for changing -- how the company and they will be better by changing.

The vision needs to be motivating, achievable, and relevant. People are inspired by a worthwhile purpose and by seeing how the new direction enhances the chance of accomplishing that purpose.

So, the company will be better off by changing, but what's in it for them personally? People need to see how the change benefits them and how the future rewards are better than the current situation. Knowing that senior managers or stockholders will make more money is not an inspiring reason for most workers.

Second, you need to find out what people are worried or concerned about. While some people hate any change, most people have good reasons for resisting.

Some people resist because they think the change will fail, that it will make things worse, or that it will hurt them or their loved ones. Some are comfortable with the current situation-- they know what's expected of them, how they fit in, whom they'll work with, and how to do their job successfully. Change shakes all that up -- the future is uncertain. People resist when they believe that the dangers outweigh the benefits. They need to know that the risks can be minimized, managed, or overcome.

Don't assume you know what people are most worried about. Ask questions to uncover their concerns and to solicit their suggestions about the change. Once you understand their concerns, you can begin to address them.

When people tell you why they don't immediately support the change, make sure you listen. Workers don't have the same perspective as management. Frequently, front-line employees complain about a "new" change which senior management has been studying for months. If they don't understand the rationale, you can clarify the reasons. If they mention flaws that might undermine the change's success, ask them to explain their ideas. Often workers who are closer to customers can recognize problems that are not readily seen by senior leaders.

Some people expect the worse in any change, especially if they've already been "downsized." They may be afraid that they won't succeed because they are unsure that they can learn new skills.

If they have unfounded fears about losing their job, you can reassure them that there is a place for them in the new organization. If they are unrealistically afraid that they can't do what will expected of them, let them know there will be support, training and coaching to teach them the new skills. If they don't have the right skills for the new organization, be sure to provide them with support in finding a more appropriate job either inside or outside the company.

Even if you don't see the situation in the same way, it's important to show empathy and support for people's feelings about the change. When people express or vent their feelings in a safe environment, you let them blow off steam.

Many people, once allowed to discuss their fears and reservations without being ridiculed or attacked, are able to look at the positive side of change. Those who still don't buy into the change may be better off leaving your organization, but they will leave with a more positive image of the company that has listened to them.

Third, get people involved in important work in shaping the future. We are not likely to fight a future that we help to shape or create. Involvement in important projects builds momentum, creates confidence and enthusiasm, and develops a sense of ownership in the new direction. Commitment to change is directly proportionate to people's involvement in making a change happen.

Fourth, establish ongoing, open communication at all levels to keep people informed about the change. Communicate regularly about the change, and provide information about progress in implementing the change.

Often managers make the mistake of wanting to have all details worked out before communicating. Nature abhors a vacuum. Silence during a major change produces anxiety. Worse, people fill the silence with their own theories. People naturally need to make sense of what's happening, and if you tell them nothing, they will make up their own stories. You need to acknowledge and address the rumor mill. Explain what you know and don't know at various points during the change.

Finally, make it easier for workers to change. Provide support to people during a difficult change. If you expect employees to learn new skills, knowledge, and behaviors, provide them with training or coaching. Create an environment that supports the new way of being.

Retool the work environment to support your desired outcomes. For example, if you want employees to spend more time with customers, remove administrative barriers rather than adding more time-consuming paperwork to their accountabilities. Look for ways to remove distractions and temptations that might encourage people to revert to old behaviors.

Remember, when people first try new behaviors, they often are awkward and uncomfortable in the new way, and they may tend to slide back into more familiar, comfortable ways.

As leaders, look for ways to provide encouragement and reinforcement for people who try the new way. For example, if you want employees to engage in more risk-taking and initiative, thank them for their ideas. Make sure that you don't "shoot down" or humiliate the first employee who proposes a new idea.

It takes time, energy, and concerted effort by leaders and employees to help people to overcome resistance and build commitment to change, yet the rewards of that work are great. Committed employees who understand the need for change, can raise their concerns and make meaningful contributions to the change.

Committed employees who are respected by company leaders are more likely to stay longer, work harder, and help your company navigate the turbulent waters of change.

Dr. Carol P. McCoy is president of McCoy Training and Development Resources, based in Falmouth, Maine. A published author and frequent conference presenter, Dr. McCoy provides consulting, coaching and training in leadership, change management, communication, service excellence and personal development to individuals, businesses and not-for-profit organizations to help them increase their effectiveness in a constantly changing world.
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