If you ever want to innovate, create or change something, there is one thing you need to be ready for: resistance. Because when people experience change, resistance is a natural reaction.
And since managing change is a core part of your job as a project manager, managing resistance becomes a necessary part of your professional life.
This means you need to be able to handle that resistance in a calm and positive way. There are best practices for managing change that can help, but unfortunately, few of us get any training in handling resistance. So, instead, we come to fear it.
The result is inevitable: your own reaction is often to resist the resistance. And this can create an almost impenetrable barrier. Communication stops. And therefore, progress stops, when your actions become driven by fear.
Where can we learn about resistance?
Most of us have one bunch of colleagues who have learned how to deal effectively with resistance. For them, it’s a core part of their training and experience. These are, of course, sales people. They encounter objections and resistance every day. And dealing with them effectively is core to their success. So, what can we learn from sales people about how to handle resistance? Let’s look at 10 lessons.
Ten Ways to Handle Resistance to Change
“I don’t see why we need to change”
If you want me to buy something new or make a change, I need to first recognize that the current situation is no longer ideal. I have to want to see some sort of change.
One of the commonest responses we hear, as project managers, is: “If it ain’t broke: don’t fix it.” And that is a perfectly reasonable response. Because why should I support a change if I don’t know why it’s necessary.
So, when you get this form of resistance, your first task is show that it is broken–that status quo is not sustainable. I won’t listen to you about what the change is, until you show me why I should.
“I am not ready to listen”
Change requires a demanding conversation, so choose your moment. If, for any reason, I am focused on something else; physically, mentally or emotionally, then respect my current priorities. If you don’t, then you’ll just waste your breath trying to persuade me. Look for the right time. Or do something simpler: ask me when the right time will be.
“I don’t understand why we need to make this change”
We all like to think we are great at explaining things. But, the truth is that we often aren’t. Your explanations sound great to you, because you already understand them.
People will find it uncomfortable to admit they don’t understand what you’re saying. So, instead, they will seem to argue, to resist. You can often spot that this is what’s going on, when the excuses they give are stock excuses that bears little relation to what you have been saying.
When people don’t understand you, don’t just repeat yourself. Find a new way to explain things. If you’ve used data, try an anecdote. If you’ve used graphs, try letting people experience the problem for themselves.
Japanese business has a concept of “going to the gemba,” gemba being the place where something happens. If you want to solve a problem; don’t discuss it in the abstract. Take the team there to see for yourselves. The same is true when you want to explain something complex and important. Take people to see for themselves.
“I am the wrong person to talk to”
Don’t salespeople just hate hearing this after a long and successful-seeming pitch. And then their prospect declares, “I’d love to buy. But I don’t have the authority.”
When it comes to change, some people like to have an excuse to avoid engaging with the problem. “It ain’t my problem. So why do I need to get involved.”
For them, you need to show three things:
- The change is inevitable. This is our first example.
- The change is imminent. Which means you need to be ready to listen
- The change will affect you. Yes, you. So, you cannot duck it.
The solution to this one is to conjure personal examples of how the looming changes will affect that person.
It’s worth remembering that some people may genuinely not have the authority to say yes to a change. If so, find out who does, and also what their relationship is with the person you are speaking with. I may not have the authority to do something, but I may be able to influence the person who does.
“It is not top of my agenda”
Organizations face many challenges at the same time. And your project is addressing just one subset of them.
I may have more on my plate. And therefore, what is important to you may not be top priority for me.
This is a bit like like our second example. You’ll need to be patient, until it hits my top priority list. Or maybe, like our first example, I simply don’t recognize how important it is.
But maybe it really is not important to me. So, take the path of least resistance. Don’t waste my time or you will find yourself facing more resistance. Instead, look for someone else who is ready to engage, and that can offer your project the support you need.
“I am not ready to say yes”
Have you ever been on the verge of buying something, but you aren’t quite ready? And then the salesperson keeps on at you. Eventually, you walk out of the shop. Learn from that experience. You want to lead change, but not until the time is right to lead that change.
“Not ready to say yes” is not “no.” It may feel like resistance to you, but this is not really resistance. If anything, it is a signal that yes is coming. So back off a little. Be patient, because what they need is some more time, and maybe more answers, or more concessions. The best approach is to ask the obvious question: “What else do you need, so you will be ready to decide?”
“I don’t like this change”
It is quite possible that some people will be worse off because of the change your project is promoting. So why should they like it? It’s crucial to be respectful and listen carefully. Give them what help and support you can, and avoid the temptation to tell them it is something it isn’t. Be honest, or there will be a debt to pay, down the line.
Sometimes, people will think they are worse of, but they won’t be. That’s another reason to listen hard. Unless you do so, you’ll find it hard to spot the misconception, and just get stuck in a cycle of argument.
Finally, a team member or stakeholder may not like the change for wholly selfless reasons. They may be no worse off. They may even benefit. But in resisting, they may be trying to tell you something important. They may be saying that they think the change is wrong for the organization.
And maybe…just maybe, they have spotted something you have not. If you don’t listen to them and evaluate what they are telling you, you could make the mistake they are trying to warn you about.
“I don’t know how to manage it”
Some people do not resist because they think something is wrong: they just don’t know how to make the change. But neither do they like to admit it.
It is no good selling me a great product if you can’t teach me how to use it. Why would I want to buy that? This is a more specific version of “not ready to say yes.” It reminds you that you need to think about training and support, before you are fully ready to implement your proposals.
“I don’t think I can cope with it”
This one is trickier. Because this is not about not knowing how to; it is about self-doubt and fear. I may know how, but I don’t believe I can.
This often arises in organizational change, when there is a fundamental change to processes and systems, and a long-serving workforce. Some of them may be fearful that they will be left behind by the changes, and won’t be able to cope.
Your response to this has to be supportive, rather than directive. Your task is to reinforce my confidence in myself and my ability to cope with and thrive from the transition.
“I don’t like you”
This feels personal. And possibly it is. You may be the wrong messenger.
More likely, though, it isn’t about you. It is about what you represent in their mind. Maybe it is just that you are the messenger.
Whatever the reason, something I connect you with is getting in the way of properly engaging with you. It may be from my past, a prejudice, or just that I’m in a bad mood and it’s you that’s here, now.
If you can, then the easiest solution is to find a new messenger. The tougher option may be all that is available. You need to start the long-term task of building a fresh relationship.
And one bonus extra lesson…
“I don’t want to…”
Some people don’t resist because they disagree, don’t understand, or are scared. They resist because they like the feeling of resisting. Maybe they like behaving badly.
There is not much you can do here, because it is the game they enjoy-they win when you play. You cannot win. All you can do is to stop playing the game.
Start a new conversation about what’s going on, and if they continue to misbehave, you’ll need to opt for a new process altogether, such as Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model.
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