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3 Ways to overcome resistance to organizational change

How understanding resistance can help you transform it into fuel for change.

As a designer and facilitator of Tailored Business Solutions at Hyper Island, I spend a lot of time with organizations that are working hard to adapt to new challenges and change presented by an increasingly networked world. These challenges take many forms: from cultivating new mindsets and approaches, to transforming business models; from re-inventing vision/mission/values, to pivoting toward new industries and market spaces. Across this range of challenges, there is one hindering force that is always, always present...

People resist change.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Psychology research tells us that as humans, we far prefer security and familiarity, to the disruption and uncertainty that come with change. In this light, resistance to organizational change is a normal response that we should expect and indeed empathize with.

Understanding resistance and learning to transform it

How can we deepen our understanding of resistance and learn techniques to handle it? Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter helps illuminate some of the root causes of resistance in her research around the question Why People Resist Change. She identifies a range of root causes of resistance that are helpful. Here, I’ve selected four:

  • Loss of Control: people resist because they worry about losing autonomy over their work.
  • Excess Uncertainty: people resist because they feel overwhelmed by not knowing what to expect.
  • Surprise, Surprise: People resist because they feel ambushed or frustrated at being left out.
  • Competence Concerns: people resist because they worry their skills will become obsolete.

Do you recognize any of these root causes? Can you see them at play in the dynamics of change in your organization? As we become aware of them, how can we, as leaders of change, overcome them and support people to move through resistance to ultimately become champions of the change?

Don’t talk about the future, show it

There’s a fundamental technique in writing and storytelling called “show, don’t tell.” The idea is that it is far more powerful to have the reader experience a story, through images, actions, senses and feelings, rather than to simply comprehend a story through summarization and description.  

The notion of showing instead of telling is a useful one that can be applied way beyond the realm of creative writing. In an organizational change process, showing the future (instead of telling about it) is a powerful way to overcome resistance.

So how can you show, rather than tell, what the future could look like? Here are three simple approaches you can deploy

  • Prototype an experience: show the future by actually creating a small and simple version of it! Maybe this means creating a paper-prototype of a new product/service idea, or inviting one team to test out a new working methodology. By bringing the change to life in a small-scale, low-stakes way, you can ignite interest and buy-in.
  • Paint a rich picture: think like a writer and find ways to tell the story of the change in ways that evoke people’s senses and emotions. Craft a vision that is compelling and irresistible. Write it down and bring it to life with images and anecdotes. This will help balance uncertainty with a shared sense of what the collective is driving toward.
  • Invite co-creation: listen, involve and invite real contribution. Design simple processes that give people the opportunity to share their perspectives, offer ideas and influence the direction in a real way. When people feel included, listened to and invited to influence they are much more likely to become champions of the change.

Handle resistance, start a movement

By showing instead of telling what the future can be, you can address and diminish some of the underlying causes of resistance. Worries about loss of control, being surprised or made obsolete are handled and often diminished. Uncertainty (while never completely gone) is complemented by a compelling story about what the future can be.

Meeting resistance to change will always be a challenge for leaders working to drive transformation. But with the right mindset and toolbox, it doesn’t have to lead to inertia or failure. Instead, it can be understood, handled and ultimately transformed into the fuel for change.

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