When People Resist

Of course they resist change!

So you want to know what to do about it?

On my bookshelves I have dozens of books that connect to leading change.  Maybe you have some too.  Or you can do a search on how to lead change and navigate resistance, resulting in millions of resources.  So many people studying change, and the processes and practices in how to lead it.  But let’s talk about change and our brains.

One of the biggest challenges I hear from leaders over the years is how to deal with change resistance.  What do we do about it?  And what’s ironic is we want to avoid the resistance.  Why can’t we just have more flexibility, open mindedness, and agility?   Can we skip over it please?

But what if rather than want to avoid it, we embrace it.  We understand it and actively work through it, knowing that it is expected.  We welcome it.  We feel it and process it.  Because we are all human.

And because we are human, our brains are wired to protect us.  Our brain constantly scans for danger and finds it.  Emotionally, physically, and practically speaking we see change as a threat.  It is unknown, the consequences are uncertain, and we protect ourselves.  This happens largely in our unconscious minds, and this is also why it is a challenge to change it.  We need to bring the thoughts and emotions to the surface.  Understand them in order to change them.

Think of the last time you led a change effort.  I’ll share some of the key reasons we resist change and see which of these you can identify with for your team.

And probably even more importantly, think of the last time a change effort affected you.  Bring that to the surface and identify the thoughts and emotions you were feeling about the change, and the anxiety or fear that you might have been feeling.

Resistance 5 Reasons:

  • Fear: Of the unknown, the uncertainty of the impact on us, the fear of leaving the cave (According to the motivational triad, we are wired to prioritize the following: Avoid pain. Maintain efficiency.  Seek pleasure.).  We don’t know what danger lurks outside of the cave.  It’s not good.
  • Complacency: It is easier to stay put, no urgency to change (i.e., maintain efficiency).
  • Stress and/or Overwhelm: When there is too much anxiety going on in our brains, can’t think through the ramifications and implications of the change; we get sick and shut down; when we’re overwhelmed it’s easy to stuck in inaction; decision making seems difficult and moving forward is a challenge (See Podcast:  https://intentionaleaders.com/podcast-23-indecision-and-staying-stuck/    ).
  • Rewards/Status: In the current state we are confident and competent in what we are doing, we’ve achieved status in being effective at our roles, tasks and/or responsibilities, we don’t want to jeopardize our credibility or status (seek pleasure).
  • Independence: When we don’t want to be told what to do, it triggers a threat to our sense of freedom, being forced to comply, many don’t react well to this forced compliance.

5 Strategies for moving people through resistance:

  1. Why: Tell them why;  be consistent in the messages; be clear and urgent
  1. Drivers: You need to know what is driving change in your industry and in your organization.  Be informed about what is going on so you can be prepared, knowledgeable and ready to communicate to your team.  Change is prompted in two ways:
    1. External: outside of the organization (e.g., government, regulatory, consumer demand, competition)
    2. Internal: inside the organization (leadership, engagement scores, DE&I initiatives, employee

Know these drivers and help your employees to be aware as well.  If they know the drivers they have more context about the need to change.

  1. Engagement: Engage people in the process of change; be collaborative.  This sounds like a no brainer, but there are so many missed opportunities because we may not want the challenges associated with the reactions above.  The irony is by including people upfront, we have an opportunity to manage, mitigate the reactions.  It’s more a matter of timing.  Work through them directly and upfront or introduce the change and experience them later (with an added dose of resentment!).

To get understanding and buy in, engagement is critical.

  1. Learning and growth: Make this a constant so that everyone on your team knows that change and changing themselves is vital and expected.  Be a role model for learning because that is foundational to change and evolution. If we’re not learning we’re not changing.  If you create an environment in which others have the opportunity and expectation to evolve, change because less frightening.  We know that we are set up to be successful in our jobs and roles, regardless of how they might evolve.
  2. Consequences: At the end of the day, we are responsible for guiding ourselves and others through the process.  Not everyone will make it through the change.  We need to understand and accept it.  It is their choice, and with that choice comes consequences.  This is unpleasant all around because we wish we could help others to see it, and change (See Podcast: https://intentionaleaders.com/podcast-26-the-manual/ ).  We feel sad, disappointed or angry.

Bring the emotions to the surface.  Be transparent.  Allow vulnerability.  You need to help others (and yourself) share emotions and understand them.

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” – John Maxwell  So rather than complaining about resistance, or expecting it to go away, let’s adjust our strategies.  And welcome it.  Know that its just our brain operating effectively.  And it’s our job to give it peace.