How To Move A Resistant Organization Through Change

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Resistant Organization

Originally published on Forbes by Susan Taylor

As CEO of an international company, Adam (not his real name) recognized his organization was in trouble. Employees showed little understanding of the overall purpose of their work and were satisfied delivering mediocre results. This attitude trickled down throughout the organization, even extending to its customers. To stay competitive, Adam knew the culture had to change — everyone from the top down had to demonstrate a drive for greater results. The first step was for the leadership team to model the behavior they wanted the employees to embody.

Easy enough — until it was time for the leadership to explore those changes by examining their own “mediocre” behaviors. Suddenly, the team was resistant to look inside and develop the “softer skills” required to create the change they desired. Despite the best intentions, within 12 months, Adam’s initiative to change died with a whimper.

It was a classic case of “Ready, Set, No!” Senior leaders agreed there was a problem and that they needed a solution. They had even decided how to fix the problem. They had the “Ready” and the “Set,” but somehow their “Go” turned into a “No,” derailing the entire process.

Why The No?

When we think about change, we consider the good things it will bring us: improvement and/or a better life. In our minds, we don’t plan to fail. It’s the same in our personal lives as it is in business. How often do you decide to join the gym because you know not getting enough exercise is unhealthy, making a commitment to work out four days a week, but then consistently putting off workouts after some stressful days at work?

The difference between what we say we want and what we end up doing occurs because, while we want to make a change, it’s difficult. Often, we focus on the benefits change can bring but forget that change is messy and uncomfortable and, at least initially, requires constant vigilance to alter behaviors. We think we’re ready for change, only to discover midway that what we weren’t prepared for the commitment.

When we fail to make a change in our personal lives, we can retool and try again. But in a business environment, failure to change has financial costs. Even worse, it damages the credibility of the leadership, which impacts the company culture. That’s why, when you’re going to make a change in your organization, it’s essential to get to the “Go.”

Recognizing (And Addressing) Resistance

When clients like Adam come to me, I look for three factors indicating their likelihood of success. Examining these factors can help you determine if your team or organization is ready to implement change as well.

1. Has the leader/team/organization embraced the need for change? Going back to the exercise analogy, do you want to exercise because the doctor just lectured you about the dangers of not working out? Or do you want to exercise because you’ve noticed that every time you go up the stairs, you’re winded?

To be ready for change, there must be a tension: a degree of dissatisfaction with the current situation, and one so great that even messy change brings relief. It’s the thought that “anything has to be better than this,” coupled with a personal understanding of why these alterations will make life better.

2. Do you have a realistic plan for how the change will be implemented, who will be involved, how it will affect people, what the transition will look like, and what the negatives might be? Does everyone affected by the change understand how long the process will take?

We live in a world of instant gratification (thank you, social media), where we don’t like to wait for anything. Operating differently takes time, and we get impatient. When we need to rewire our brains and alter our habits minute-by-minute to create new behaviors, it’s exhausting. That’s when we declare that the plan isn’t working or it’s too hard, and we quit.

This is where Adam and his team stumbled: When they realized that their grand plan required they change, too, they began to resist, even though they initially had good intentions. The way this shows up is by people refusing — sometimes even undermining — the steps that have been put in place to create change. This is also where the next, most essential aspect of recognizing readiness to change emerges.

3. As a leader, do you have the courage to change and the willingness to challenge the status quo, no matter what? This is where Adam — perhaps even more so than his team — fell short. As he detected resistance, he allowed doubt to creep in. He set the stage for what he wanted, yet when his team showed an unwillingness to do the required internal work, he gave in, not insisting that everyone follow the very path they had already agreed upon.

This is where courage and commitment meet, discerning whether people on your team are working toward the goal or against it. There is no middle. If your people are not supporting the vision, why are they there at all?

You may lose people, but in that you’ll attract others who share your dream and are passionate about helping you achieve it.

It’s normal to underestimate how difficult change can be. Yet once you understand that, recognize signs of resistance, and have the fortitude to move forward, your vision will become reality.


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