March 24, 2020

Getting Past Change Resistance

by Wendy Ryan in Change Management

Change resistance is natural for humans. Leaders struggle with it because they recognize change will create more work for their teams in the short term, they don’t want to take the reputation hit if the change doesn’t go well, and deep down they fear some loss of control.

Every change is inconvenient and taxing, but change is a necessary rung on the ladder of growth. Especially today, when public buildings are shut down and team members move to remote work in the wake of COVID-19.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to lead people through change resistance. But in order to do that, you have to buy into the long term benefits of that change and muster the courage required to make it happen. You’ll never convince your team on the need to change unless you believe it, too.

Short-term impact of change

In the short term, change is inconvenient at best and incredibly stressful at worst. New routines, new tools and new systems take time for team members (and you, as the leader) to learn and get used to. There is often a pretty painful learning curve we have to climb before we realize the benefit.

The silver lining behind change in the short term is what it can remind all of us, no matter how tumultuous it may feel, about what we and our team members are really made of. It’s this kind of recognition that can get organizations through difficult times.

Long-term impact of change

Any change an organization takes on has the potential for long-lasting impact, both positive and negative. When necessary change doesn’t happen, organizations and teams risk losing key team members to other teams and to competitors. Others start to notice which organizations and teams are flexible and open to change and which are not.

With clear intention, organizations can really benefit from the momentum built by frequent changes over time. Smaller changes are easier to execute but compound for greater impact. Team members are more willing to offer new ideas for additional change when they perceive that these ideas are genuinely welcomed and supported—whether adopted or not. Just keep in mind that there is a fine line between building change agility in your organization and the overwhelm that comes from change saturation.

How will the team operationalize the change?

Communication is key in any change, no matter its scope or organizational impact. Team members want to know how the change impacts their day to day lives on the most basic level. If a new reporting system requires every team member to pitch in, for example. Will they have to work overtime? Will they miss their child’s soccer games? Will new people join the team? Will their office move down the hall?

Team members will ask these questions because they matter a great deal to them, not necessarily to you, the leader. Leaders generally have more time to prepare for change. They’ve known change was coming longer than their team members in most cases. Remember, even if your answers are incomplete or only best guesses at this stage, your team members need to hear your respectful answers.

Leading through change resistance

As leaders, we sometimes indulge in the fantasy that we’re all mature adults and our team members will just figure things out on their own. I hate to say it, but that’s actually immature thinking on our part! Instead of wishing people were different, let’s meet them where they’re at. Talk together to find out how to make the change more tenable for you and your employees and approach their challenges as problems you will solve together.

This is especially important in the times we’re in today, with schools closed and workers who can do so going suddenly remote full-time. We don’t yet know the full extent of economic impact or when the health risks associated with COVID-19 will diminish. When the roadmap is so unclear, it’s more important than ever to keep our virtual office doors open and encourage candid dialogue at every level.

When you invite your team members to help figure out how to operationalize change, it will probably take more of your time on the front end and it may take longer for the change to implement. This is a great example of what Whitney Johnson and others describe as “slowing down to go fast.” Taking the time to engage your team around the why and how of change makes it much more effective and more beneficial to the organization because there’s a whole lot more buy-in.

For more on how to be a better leader in the face of change and beyond, download my Be a Better Leader video series by adding your email address below. It’s quick videos with actionable steps to be better every day.

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