Overcome Resistance to Change
By Hal Lancaster
For Homo sapiens, resistance to anything they don't understand or don't like is the normal
state of affairs. Heck, I've known people who consider it the wise path to automatically
resist anything, until presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
In corporate America, then, where life is a constant push-pull of new ideas facing off
against engrained ways of doing things, the ability to overcome resistance is a critical
S.K. Gupta has learned that lesson the hard way. "I used to be Mr. Know-it-all,"
he says. "I was way ahead of everybody else." Because of this, says the vice
president of operations for Lockheed Martin's space systems company in Denver, he
struggled for years against a glass ceiling of his own construction.
But he finally realized that it's "unnatural for people to want change." He
started studying why people resisted the ideas he thought were no-brainers and how he
could overcome that resistance. "It finally dawned on me that I had to bring people
along, as opposed to standing outside of the process and throwing rocks at the
system." Now, he has a new philosophy. "Problem solving is good, but helping
others solve problems is better," he says. That, he notes, has enabled him to build
trust and alliances that have lessened resistance to his ideas. Instead of expecting
people to instantly understand and adopt his ideas, he says, he now sees it as his job to
"convince, cajole and coax."
That recognition led to a career turnaround and numerous promotions. "I never
expected to reach this level of the corporation," he says. He recognized the power of
this attitude shift a few years back when one of his bosses gave him a special assignment
that required the ability to effect change. "It wasn't obvious I was the right person
to be doing it," Mr. Gupta recalls. So he asked the boss why he was selected.
"He said it was because he saw me change the system from within rather than from the
outside," he says. "That was 180 degrees from where I used to be."
Part of Mr. Gupta's turnaround came from working with Rick Maurer, an Arlington, Va.,
consultant who specializes in overcoming resistance. His interest in that topic came from
some early career failures, says Mr. Maurer, author of "Beyond the Wall of
Resistance" (1996) and "Why Don't You Want What I Want?" (2002, both Bard
"I would propose what I thought were brilliant ideas, and I couldn't get people
interested," he says. "Yet, other people would go in and say, 'I have an idea'
and people would jump at it."
What he learned, he says, is that people have three levels of resistance: "I don't
get it, I don't like it, or I don't like you." The first level, he says, is the
easiest to overcome, because it's based on a shortage of information. The third level -- I
don't like you -- is the toughest, because it "gets down to the nature of the
relationship between us." he says. "If the trust between us has been eroded,
it's a difficult domain to work with."
Are you facing resistance to your brilliant ideas? Here's a game plan for overcoming it:
Stop pitching and listen.
The natural tendency of hot shots with a brilliant idea is to sell it incessantly. But
it's just as important to stop and listen to people's reactions to your brilliant idea.
"People tend to become totally focused on the idea and presenting it, and they become
walking infomercials," Mr. Maurer says. "If all I do is talk about my idea and
try to sell it, there's no way for people to tell me their concerns, so they get angry and
disengage," he says.
That forces them to take their resistance underground and leads to what Mr. Maurer calls
"malicious compliance," where people do just enough to stay out of trouble and
keep you off their backs. "But what you don't get is the kind of commitment you need
to make the project a success," he says. Instead, the resisters grind the idea to
dust by forming committees, holding endless meetings and never making timely decisions.
Smoke them out.
Even if you aren't hearing any resistance, trust me, it's there somewhere, so invite it.
During meetings, Mr. Maurer says, you could say something like: "You know, if I were
you, I'd really be concerned about such-and-such. Doesn't that concern you?"
"You get them talking, and you find out what the barriers are," Mr. Maurer says.
"Then, if you get a yes, it's a real yes."
Mr. Maurer recalls a vice president of a financial-services company who was getting severe
resistance to proposed operational changes from the managers who reported to him. So
before a big meeting on the subject, he implored them to write down their objections on
three-by-five cards and give them to him two days before the meeting. That enabled the
boss to define resistance barriers and prepare to parry them.
Have coffee with Joe.
Every organization has a Joe. He knows all the company's problems and loves to whine, er,
talk about them. He may be a pain in the behind, but he's often a barometer of the
office's feelings. "He's often the last person you want to talk to," Mr. Maurer
says, "because he whines and complains, but he'll say the things the more political
people know not to say."
Find out why.
When you encounter resistance, find out why it's there. Maybe managers are concerned about
the business cycle. It isn't likely, for example, that management is going to embark on an
expensive new leadership-development program in this kind of economy, Mr. Maurer points
out. So maybe you shelve the idea and repropose it in six months.
Are subordinates concerned about losing their jobs or losing control over their work? Did
your boss understand your concept? Or is his objection more personal? "Maybe it's
because of who you are," Mr. Maurer says. "You're too new, you haven't built a
track record, and, in his eye, making the proposal is arrogant." Or maybe it's
because of whom you represent. Mr. Maurer has found, for example, that when he shows up at
an organization, people are instantly wary. Maybe the last consultant's ideas led to a 40%
reduction in force. "When I walk in a room, people see Andersen, McKinsey, a whole
history that has nothing to do with me as an individual," he says. "I've never
participated in a downsizing."
If the resistance is based on personal issues, solutions take more time, because you have
to build more trust and credibility.
Understand the resister.
Nine months ago, Mr. Gupta arranged for a 30-minute meeting with one of his superiors to
discuss his next assignment. But before the meeting, he sat down to assess this executive
vice president. "He's a driver," he says. "What he wants to make his
decision are options and possibilities. If I went to him with testimonials or guarantees,
I would never succeed."
Also, he recognized that the best thing he could do for this results-driven executive was
to save him time. So he wrapped up his presentation in 12 minutes. "It was the best
12 minutes I've ever had," he says, noting that the assignment he eventually received
included a promotion.
Make sure you're speaking the right language.
Communication is a real problem for techies, who often use technical lingo that no one
else understands. What people don't understand, they resist. "If you keep talking in
your own jargon," Mr. Maurer says, "they're not going to get what you're talking
Remain open to ideas.
If you're flexible, you might have a better chance of winning allies for your idea.
"If you're going to listen to people," Mr. Maurer says, "you have to let
yourself be influenced by them. Maybe they're resisting for good reason. I have to
recognize, 'Oh, they've got a good point. If I spread this out over 12 months, it might
have a better chance.' "
Don't get too far ahead of people.
There is a cycle of change in an organization, says Glade Wilkes, vice president of safety
for Great West Casualty Co. It starts with recognition of a problem, then proceeds to the
formulation of ideas for change, implementation of those ideas and then, hopefully, the
integration of the change into the company's culture. "I tend to get into the
implementation and integration portions of the cycle ahead of others in the
organization," he says. "If not enough people in the organization recognize the
problem, maybe you won't get the support you need. You have to get a critical mass of
people to recognize how this problem affects the organization and [everyone] in it."
To get that critical mass, you have to slow down and educate people, giving them
information that will allow them to recognize the problem you've identified. And
sometimes, you just have to give the organization time to accept the concept of change.
"I would dwell too long at [the first change] level, thinking people just didn't
understand, when all along, they just didn't like change," Mr. Wilkes says.
Reprinted by permission from CareerJournal.com
© Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.