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Don’t fear resistance – turn it into engagement!

By Malene Kingo Christensen, Partner

Change is hard, difficult and filled with a lot of human reactions, and we often fear how managers and employees will react. But fear not! If handled right, we can convert the negative energy into engagement and turn the strongest dissenter into a dedicated advocate.

Change leadership is a part of your leadership role. When you sign the contract and accept the role as leader of a department or even as part of the C-suit, you automatically sign up for leading change. Still many of us struggle with leading change successfully. And by successfully, I mean changing the individual behaviour for all the managers and employees impacted by a change.

When resistance to change is converted into engagement early in the process, we can use the energy to mobilize our organization. Whether it is rolling out the next business strategy, our new company IT solution or implementation or different compliance aspects, there is much more energy in engaging and mobilizing than in handling resistance. And it is far more fun!

I have found that an ‘engagement strategy’ and execution of related activities is a useful and effective element in the overall change management approach.

How do you know if people are resistant?

Prosci recently published a study about resistance, and they point out seven types of resistance.

After 20 years of experience with change processes I find it useful to categorize resistance into three groups:

  • Non-articulated resistance: Managers, and employees, are to some extend unaware of their own resistance towards the change. They do not articulate their resistance but their body language, attitude, and behaviour signal resistance. They just feel that something is not right.
  • Articulated resistance: Managers and employees resist the change. They might ask a lot of difficult questions to which we do not have the answers yet. They discuss their objections with peers and focus on the downside of the change, and they try to avoid new ways of working.
  • Constructive resistance: Managers and employees are aware of their own resistance and even the root cause of it. They communicate the root causes and use data to verify and validate the cause of resistance. They might even search for solutions.

Combine the seven types of resistances with non-articulated, articulated and constructive resistance, and you have a framework to analyse the resistance pattern in your organisation and the foundation for your engagement strategy.

What your engagement strategy should incorporate?

These are the five steps to make your engagement strategy:

  1. Prepare the managers for leading the change. Participants in Proscis Best Practices in Change Management, 2018 edition identified mid-level managers as the most resistant group during change. Prosci also found that two of the reasons why managers resist change is lack of awareness and knowledge about change, and lack of confidence in their own ability to manage the people side of change.
    Managers are leading and accompanying the employees through the change. Engaging managers increases the likelihood of engaging employees. That’s why we should clarify expectations, create awareness, offer knowledge and train managers in change leadership.
  2. Involve managers and employees from a very early stage and invite them to engage. Listen to concerns and ideas they might have. Workshops, informal lunch meetings / coffee meetings, and facilitated dialogue are examples of methods that can be useful when involving.
  3. Plan for a frequent dialogue. Be open and honest. Transparency is key. Repeat important messages, communicate results – small as well as large and the next steps. Silence is your enemy as it leads to rumours and guessing which create resistance.
  4. Incorporate the constructive resistance. It is often very valuable and should be considered as a gift to the project.
  5. Plan the engagement activities up front. Describe guiding principles for engaging. Measure and communicate the effect of the concrete activities in the engagement strategy.

And yes, it will take up time and it may even delay the project timeline if not incorporated in the first version of the implementation plan. But…. if neglected, the risk is a very bumpy implementation, productivity dip, and failing to harvest the full benefit potential.

Engage, involve, mobilize and keep up the spirit until the change or even transformation is fully adopted in the line of business and you will lead a magnificent change journey!

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