I've always loved the fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes." It's such a wonderful metaphor for situations in life in which one person sees things one way and another person doesn't see it at all.

Take the example of organizational change. What one person can visualize, another can't. And that's where resistance comes in.

"Resistance" is a word we use to describe what a person is doing if they don't see things our way.

We get frustrated, even angry, when people don't embrace the new way of doing things. We think that they aren't cooperative; we say "they have their own agenda" or "they aren't team players."

I have found that many people who appear to be resistant are actually operating out of very good intentions. For instance, they may think the changes are going to hurt the customer or the company in some way. Sometimes they really don't understand what the changes are supposed to accomplish, so they are reluctant to support them.

I have observed some things while helping organizations change their culture which may be useful to you. At the very least, perhaps it will allow you to see things in a slightly different way.

Resistance can be displayed in many ways besides the obvious ones: argument and negativity. For instance, someone might smile and nod but then nothing changes. Another example of resistance is the person (often near the top) who thinks they are already enlightened and change is for "all those other people." Yet another form is the person who relentlessly questions something in the spirit of being "helpful."

Frequently, managers who are faced with changing the culture of an organization struggle without some guidance. Some common mistakes are:

  • They just expect that people will be good soldiers, so they write a memo or make an announcement and think people will jump on board automatically.
  • They side with their own employees against top management and take no steps to own the change themselves.
  • They force the changes by drastic reorganizations, chopping heads and changing jobs.
  • They do nothing and hope it all goes away.
  • They start protecting their own political hide instead of taking care of their department's needs.

Certainly there are many great managers who take the time and invest themselves in helping their employees understand the changes and how they affect them. Here are some of the things they do:
1. Stop periodically and take a step back to regroup. Sometimes leaders get out in front of the rest of the group and they lose people. This feels like resistance, but it is often simply confusion and a lack of understanding. Each person will "get it" and buy in at different points in the process. Telltale signs are blank stares, input that is off the mark or questions about the purpose of the changes. When it comes to explaining the WHY behind any change, repetition is the key. People will only be ready to hear it and understand it when they are personally ready--in their own time.

2. Make sure people understand that they weren't doing it "wrong" the old way. Sometimes people are hurt or insulted by changes because no one took the time to explain that. Their credibility is at stake, so they fight a personal battle against the new way.

3. Show people how the changes support the mission, vision and strategy of the organization. If they don't see how the change will be good for anything--other than more work (or even losing their job)--they aren't going to get behind it. Too often, senior managers are the only people who sit in a room and discuss the strategic reasons behind a change. Then they wonder why everyone is so "resistant." The best strategy here is to communicate the changes at every opportunity, so that people understand how the changes tie into the big picture. All the senior and middle managers need to participate in one-on-one meetings, small group sessions, round-table discussions and company-wide meetings. These should be done often and with a format that allows for maximum interaction.

4. Help each person see how the changes impact them. Discuss what's in it for them and what they can do to help make the changes in their jobs. Take it down to the details and the specifics so that people can see clearly what the change means and what their part in it is.

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