How to overcome the barriers that others put in the way

“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”
― Libba Bray, The Sweet Far Thing

Many leaders that I have worked with are much more comfortable managing rather than leading.  So when these leaders learn that leadership is not managing to results but instead establishing a clear, compelling vision for the future, they appreciate the difficulty of convincing others wholeheartedly that pursuing a new direction involves what is often uncomfortable change.

In our work with executives helping them move their organization in a new direction, we have found several consistent obstacles that describe how people respond when faced with change that they did not initiate.

People suffer in silence

They don’t share their feelings and reactions with the boss.  They might share them with their co-workers.  They may not share their concerns with their boss because they are too scared of what the change will bring, or they think they will be perceived as uncooperative or not up to implementing what is expected of them.  So they keep silent. This is your biggest enemy as a leader.

Of course you can sit down with them and gently hold a conversation to tease out their reactions to the change.  If you have a very solid and trusting relationship with them they may share what they are going through.

You have a higher probability of heading off their silence if you involve them in developing the change implementation plan.  (I continue to be astounded by the number of executives who keep change plans secret, then suddenly unleash the announcement and expect people to get right on board.)  When you need others to do things differently, get their input.  It may be as little as asking them for information, or it may involve reaching consensus on new ways of doing the work.

Whether you are instituting change through revolution or change through evolution, customize the activities that support the change based on each person’s appetite and ability to handle change.  This is not the time to be overly cautious of who “needs to know”.  Change initiatives have been derailed when an absence of information created more turmoil, discontent and inaction than if the information kept secret had been disseminated.  Involve those affected by the change to design their own change management plan.

There are only five ways to reach a decision that affects other people. Four of them involve the leader talking to their followers.  When people share what they will potentially have to deal with in implementing the change you can help them work through it.  Their input also helps them buy in and own the change.

People have different tolerances for the amount of change they can digest

In workshops about change management sometimes we will conduct a short, fun exercise to demonstrate this.  We ask participants to pair up and turn their backs on each other.  We then ask them to change one thing about their appearance, turn around and see if they can observe what has changed about the other person.  There is much laughter and good-naturedness as they do this.  Then we ask them to do the same process again, changing something else about their appearance.  Still some laughing.  The we ask them to do it again.  Sometimes we repeat this activity for a fourth time.  What we find is that for some participants they are done with the exercise after two rounds, others love the activity and even after four rounds want to keep going.  Everyone has a different capacity for dealing with change.

Some of your staff will be skeptical of change that bucks the current order of things.   Others will be wishing that changes should already be happening and they have an appetite for even more.  Some would like an incremental, bite-sized approach to the change process, others would prefer blowing up past practices and reinventing the work.

Given the diversity in your organization there is no way to create a one-size-fits-all change management plan.  Better to involve your staff in the discussions about the change that you are thinking of implementing.  (Sound familiar?)  This way you can gauge people’s tolerance for change.  While no one approach to implementing change works all the time, having diversity of opinion in the room as you discuss implementation will force the group to find ways to “bridge” their different perspectives and come to an agreement satisfactory to all.

Organizations and individuals vastly underestimate the amount of effort and resources needed to accomplish the change

Dr. John Kotter (Harvard Business School) has put a number on this.  We underestimate by the power of 10!  Organizations rarely think through the true extent of disruption and inefficiency that is the inevitable result of large-scale change. In addition, the law of unintended consequences always applies itself.

Either garner the resources yourself or provide your fellow executives, especially your boss, with the implications of under-resourcing e,g, the cost of false starts, chaos, re-training and potential customer and employee attrition.  This may not appear to be a popular approach.  Who has the guts to tell the boss that in reality change will cost more than the boss had wished for?  But without at least a dialogue about this issue then change efforts are guaranteed to result in unforeseen cost overruns.  We all know the old saw that it takes many more times the time, effort and expense to fix something than to have prepared to deal with it beforehand.

When the pressure is off, people “snap back” to the old ways of doing things

Ever been to yard sales in February or March?  You will no doubt find an abundance of exercise equipment.  Why so?  We make grand New Year’s resolutions to get in shape, then get the equipment and start working out.  We might see some gains in our fitness goal and lose some of the passion that we felt when we set the goal in the first place.   We might slack off exercising because we are not seeing results fast enough.  It’s as if a large rubber band was put around our waist and then attached to our old selves, and as we move to our new selves the rubber band becomes tighter and tighter compelling us to revert to our old ways unless we maintain the fortitude and energy to continue.

I once had an employee who was responsible for using a new software system to reconcile financials actually go back to do the task by hand once I had stopped checking in on her.  When I talked to her about this she said she didn’t trust the new system to provide accurate results.  It is so easy to snap back.

Make sure the new ways of doing things resulting from the change are firmly cemented in policies, procedures, values, folkways and morays.  This takes some time but be relentless about managing, rewarding and celebrating the new way.  Don’t expect everyone to be as 100% committed as you are. Remember, they see you as initiating the change (even if the directive initially came from higher-ups.)  Commitment will increase over time as they see you modeling the way, and especially when they get rewarded for the new ways of working.