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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Terranova

Overcoming Change Resistance

Leaves in multiple colors, from green to yellow, hung across a string.

Consulting, on some level, resembles a masterclass in navigating resistance to change. Organizations hire consultants to assess their current state, identify opportunities based on expertise, and offer change recommendations. Yet, it never ceases to amaze how often these very organizations, which express a desire for change, end up resisting the very change recommendations they've requested. Consultants often find themselves contending with a multitude of reasons against change and navigating intense resistance, even when the proposed changes align with the organization's long-term best interests. Every consultant reading this is nodding in total agreement.

To understand what gives in these situations, we have to take a little trip deep into the human psyche. Embedded within our reptilian brains is a natural aversion to change. Our brains perceive safety in conditions that are certain, stable, and predictable, seldom questioning whether those conditions serve our best interests. Uncertainty triggers a sense of danger, and unfamiliar territory evokes fear. Fast forward to the modern workplace where our Homosapien brains still favor the familiar. Whether we admit it or not, our initial reaction to proposed change is often trepidation. We struggle to rationally assess the potential benefits of wading into uncertainty, often opting for the comfort of the familiar over any upside potential.

Effective change leadership is an essential skill for every professional to master because it involves overcoming our innate resistance to change and persuading others to embrace a new perspective. While numerous change management models exist, including Kotter's 8-Step Change Model, the ADKAR Model, and the McKinsey 7-S Framework, to name a few, certain core principles should underlie any change effort. In this lesson, we'll explore how to effectively influence others to embrace change and dig into what it takes to build trust with those who resist taking things in a new direction.

Start with Aligned Goals

Most leaders tend to influence like lawyers, presenting their case and providing compelling reasons for change, assuming that others will naturally agree if they make a solid argument. This strategy may work in a courtroom but falls short in a conference room, as it neglects the fact that people need to agree on the destination before they consider arguments about the best route to get there.

Begin change discussions by stating a common goal that aligns all parties before attempting to influence others with change talk. Say things like, "We share a common goal of creating this outcome," "We can all agree that the current system has limitations that are preventing us from reaching our potential," or "We all want to deliver the best customer experience possible" when kicking off change conversations. Also, remember to do your homework to ensure you clearly identify the common goal instead of making assumptions that can derail the conversation from the start.

Invite Naysayers to Identify Concerns

When advocating for change, we often silence naysayers by dismissing their objections as stemming from a change-averse mindset. However, when we stifle objections that push against our change agendas, we miss out on valuable discussions about potential pitfalls. Encourage naysayers to play devil's advocate and draw them out from the shadows. Use their resistance as an opportunity to design stronger change management strategies and appreciate their contribution in identifying threats to change plans. If you let others voice objections and identify obstacles, they can become more willing to embrace and support change, even when they don't agree.

Position Change as an Experiment

People are more comfortable embracing uncertainty if they feel they can pivot or revert if things don't work out as intended. When we present recommended changes as permanent alterations, we often encounter stronger resistance. Instead, frame proposed changes as experimental hypotheses aimed at achieving aligned goals. Remember, all sound experiments involve testing hypotheses with logical data and measurable results to assess the viability of proposed change solutions. When we position change as an experiment, we secure buy-in and increase willingness to venture into uncharted territory.

Identify Criteria for Success

Change resistance often stems from the fear of escalating commitment. We naturally fear being trapped in situations that require continued investments of time, money, and resources into a failing course of action. To overcome this form of aversion to change, establish success criteria upfront and identify "kill switches" that signal the need to change course. Those approving change efforts should agree on what success looks like and hold each other accountable for restructuring or abandoning a failing change management effort.

Establish Framework for Reassessment

Whenever change strategies are approved and implemented within an organization, leaders advocating for change should schedule periodic reviews. This panel should include decision-makers and impartial parties who can provide feedback. The review process should involve data and evidence to assess the effectiveness of change management efforts and engage in an honest discussion about permanently implementing new ideas. When decision-makers understand that their choices will undergo scrutiny to manage risk and unintended consequences, they may develop a stronger willingness to recommend and embrace change management strategies.

Resistance to change, deeply rooted in our human psychology, is a formidable adversary for any leader to face. Our brains, honed by countless generations of survival instincts, innately seek safety in what's certain, stable, and predictable. It's a hardwired response that often leads us to question the wisdom of venturing into uncharted territories. Yet, it's precisely within these unexplored domains that true progress and innovation lie.

Effective change leadership is an indispensable skill for professionals from all walks of life because it entails the delicate art of overcoming our inherent resistance to change and persuading others to embark on a journey toward new horizons. To be successful in navigating the terrain of change, we must not merely confront resistance but also embrace it. It's through the trials and tribulations of resistance that we refine our strategies, bolster our resolve, and, in the end, lead organizations and individuals toward brighter and more innovative futures.

Headshot of Danielle Terranova

Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.

She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.

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