Part 3: How to effectively reduce resistance when implementing change initiatives

April 15, 2021 | Leadership and Organizational Development

As a leader, you will always be faced with a situation in which you will want to initiate a change. For example, you may have developed a new strategy, and have set the relevant goals and KPIs with your staff. Have you encountered resistance in an endeavor like this? What was the reason?

Staufen change management experts, Dr. Dirk Bayas-Linke and Ulrich Beck, are very well familiar with resistance in change processes and have seen it in many companies during change processes. In a series of three blog articles, they describe where you will likely encounter the six potential origins of this kind of “resistance” and how you, as the leader, can effectively work with your staff to eliminate them. In the following article, they will discuss the last two typical reasons why you might encounter resistance during the change process.

5. Fear of the future

Potential reason for resistance:

Change processes are oftentimes associated with fears. Fear of the unknown and the uncertainty associated with it or fear that a person’s professional skills may no longer be relevant in the future. Even worries about being overwhelmed are absolutely realistic. In the context of emotions such as these, it is easy to understand why individuals might oppose implementing changes and to feel resistance towards them.

How you as the leader could approach this:

As a leader, it is first important to acknowledge the emotions that can come into play in change projects. Platitudes like “… let’s keep things objective…” are of little help, because we humans are not exactly specialized in handling things on a seemingly objective plane.  Acknowledge what is there and take the concerns and fears seriously, even if your own idea of reality is different. Take your time and listen – listening works especially when you don’t talk much yourself! Show your human side, be empathetic. It may be of help to admit your own weaknesses or even to address any concerns you yourself might have. What kind of captain would you be if you had to face a storm without any worries? At the same time, though, what is critical for your team is that you remain confident and are supportive. Here as well, do not leave any doubt as to whether or not the change will take place. You know the announcement the pilot team makes on an aircraft when things get turbulent. You, the passenger, are given the opportunity to adjust to the turbulence. The pilot team can’t do anything about it. But they can explain it. At the same time, most passengers never really doubt that the pilots will find a way to safely navigate the turbulence. Once again, it becomes clear how important it is to have a well thought-out, coherent and plausible explanation for the change. Read more in our article “The Change Compass: How to Effectively Plan and Control Change Processes“.

6. The cause of the resistance is not found where you expect it

Potential reason for resistance:

Most executives have experienced the following situation: There have been staff members who oppose implementing changes for quite a few months or even years! They have taken this topic up for discussion quite a few times and talked about it in detail, without any improvement. We often assume that the cause lies in a person’s feelings, but the reason for the lack of improvement may lie in an organizational construct that you have not yet considered. Once again, what becomes obvious is how much we tend to identify the individual as the causal factor (because it is obvious). All too readily, we assign resistance to specific individuals or groups who behave “impossibly” or who “lock up.” However, the potential for conflict can oftentimes be found within an organization’s structure and this “trickles down” to the individual employees.

Here is an example: Imagine that in a sales organization the markets are divided into branches. Individual teams serve individual industries. This is how customers are assigned. The performance evaluation is linked to the sales of the teams. Unfortunately, the sectors of some customers cannot be assigned unequivocally because they do business in a variety of sectors. A conflict that already has a structural origin due to the choice of the allocation system and is certainly reflected in the behavior of the people involved. Negotiating or arbitrating with the individual employees and teams will not bring you any closer to solving the problem.

How you as the leader could approach this:

A potential improvement in the above example might be found in promoting an understanding and to view the situation from a degree of “distance”. The moment it becomes clear to everyone that the chosen organizational form comes with an overlapping, with misunderstandings and contradictions, there is a good chance that behaviors of those involved can be better understood. Here, though, choosing a different organizational form may resolve this contradiction, but then open up another. Understanding this is probably the crucial step. Here, too, the interaction between the three system levels at which employees behave becomes visible. In the context of a change process, it is very important to observe all three system levels – “organization”, “person, function and role” and “teams”. Read more about this in our blog article “The Change Compass: How to Effectively Plan and Control Change Processes“.

Ask again with curiosity, skepticism, courage and humor about the problem and ask other, new questions. Calmly ask your employees to take responsibility and state their position: “What would you suggest?” or “How do you think it should be regulated? Some situations cannot be solved from a leadership perspective. However, we can promote understanding through targeted reflection from a distance and perhaps still be able to shape one or the other.

Would you like to read more about the typical reasons for resistance that arise during a change process? Go to our first article here, and here to our second article of the series.

Our experts

Dr. Dirk Bayas-Linke

After studying pedagogy, Dr. Dirk Bayas-Linke began working as a consultant in qualitative market research with international clients. At the same time, he completed his doctoral thesis on organization and leadership. Through many years as a freelance consultant, he gained experience in a wide range of industries (including insurance, IT, defense, automotive) and worked with all levels in organizations on the topics of change, strategy, leadership systems, organizational design from conception to implementation. He took on his position as Principal at Staufen.AG in 2018 and is responsible for the area of change.

Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck has with his vocational training as a machinist technical roots and worked for many years as a design engineer. After training as a Kaizen coach, he was entrusted with the Lean transformation and the development of the RAFI production system. Here, Ulrich Beck gained experience in the implementation of change projects in addition to Lean management methods. As a freelance trainer for project management, he also has great knowledge in terms of various PM standards and knows the business from project practice. Since January 2015 he is working for Staufen AG as Project Manager.

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