Today’s dynamic business environment requires organizations to be continuously changing their systems and structures in order to remain competitive. However, with change inevitably comes resistance.
Resistance encompasses behaviors that are acted out by change recipients in order to slow down or terminate an intended organizational change. Such behaviors can include a general lack of cooperation, refusal to engage or participate, refusal to seek common ground, the silencing of advocates for change, and sabotage. Resistance is quite common in projects that focus on changing a significant part or process in the organization. Learning how to effectively manage stakeholder resistance is vital to the success of transformational projects.
Resistance is a natural emotional reaction for coping with change, and there are many reasons why people resist change. Some common reasons are listed in the table below.
Resistance to change can take on a variety of forms and manifests itself in either passive or active behaviors. For example, audible unhappiness among stakeholders might manifest itself with passive symptoms like one-way communication or with active symptoms like complaints and objections. Stakeholders who are disengaged might not participate in meetings (passive) or might reject invites (active). Individuals or groups may even display resistance through sabotage. Sabotage can take the form of more passive activities like not returning emails and not providing information, or through more active activities like launching negative marketing campaigns targeting the project and attempting to “break” new systems and processes. Resistance can have serious negative consequences for any change process. Thus, managing reactions to those changes is critical.
Resistance to change does not disappear but ferments and can grow into sabotage. The worst thing a manager can do is ignore difficult stakeholders and shrug resistance aside. To manage resistance before the project even begins, make sure that your leadership team is aligned, has a clear vision of the change, and is committed to the project. You should also have a good communication plan that conveys a consistent and transparent message to stakeholders that educates them about the project.
As the project begins, identify key stakeholders and figure out their motivations – who are your champions and who are your potential detractors – and monitor their status to anticipate any growing discontent. For stakeholders who are showing resistance, engage with them one-on-one to ascertain what aspects of the change are making them unhappy. Help them identify any benefits they may personally realize through the change. If possible, work on a solution that does not negatively impact others or impede the success of the project in order to re-establish buy-in and commitment. Keep in mind there will not always be a solution that meets with the approval of a difficult stakeholder, and during those situations it’s critical to respectfully convey the reason for another decision. Another tactic is to get people more involved. One of the most effective ways to gather buy-in from potential detractors is to put them in a leadership role. This gives them an incentive to make the project a success and also puts them in a position where they lead people in a positive way, rather than a negative one.
Similar to managing other forms of resistance, the best way to deal with sabotage is to identify and confront the saboteur as early as possible. Try to find out why they are acting in a manner to sabotage the project. If you cannot resolve the matter with the stakeholder directly, then you must get help from your project sponsor. If the problem continues, you may need to solicit help from other stakeholders who may have influence over this person, like a friend or somebody who the stakeholder respects. When it is clear that the stakeholder has no intention of cooperating, the last option is to remove this person from the project and replace him or her with someone who can re-energize the team and keep things moving forward. The ultimate way that senior management can communicate its conviction and support for the project is to replace “blockers” who want to sabotage the initiative.
The following table summarizes six classic strategies developed by John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger that can be used to prevent, decrease, or minimize resistance, depending on contextual factors.
Remember, resistance is a normal reaction to change. While not all resistance is bad, failure to adapt and change effects the extent to which organizations function successfully, survive, and thrive. To minimize the negative effects of resistance, ensure that top leadership is aligned on the vision behind the change. Communicate details surrounding the change to project stakeholders early and often. Identify potential detractors and address resistance immediately. Key stakeholders can make or break the success of a project but with the right tactics in place, resistance can be minimized.
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