Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thoughts on Resistance

Every month, a number of different people ask me the same question: “How do you overcome resistance from direct reports?” Over time, my answers have gotten shorter and shorter.

First, resistance is a form of feedback. Listen carefully to what they are saying. Their perceptions and feelings may not be correct in your eyes or from your perspective, but it is what they are experiencing. Learn from this information.

Second, boast their awareness about the context for change. Most people focus on the changes and the losses that will come with it. Most leaders under communicate the problems that are causing the organization to change. By selling the problems (think William Bridges and his book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, Da Capo Press, 2003), we need to present a compelling picture of the risks of not changing or of not meeting expectations, i.e. shareholders, etc.

Third, while clearly restating the purpose for change, we also need to define the levels of control and initiative those involved can exert. Too often resistance comes from not being involved in solving the aforementioned problems. As I always point out, no participation = no engagement.

Fourth, define the goals and the priorities. Make sure they are SMART goals and not just random flip chart paper goals.

Resistance happens. It is normal. Do not be afraid to lead them through this stage of organizational change.

But a least privately, someone each month asks a follow-up question to the subject of dealing with resistance from direct reports. “What do I do if my boss is the problem? What if they are resistant to change?”

Every year since 1998, we have been discussing this question in the From Vision to Action Leadership Training, It is a common problem and right now quite a few people are experiencing it.

First, understand what kind of change cycle you are going through at this time period. Is it evolution or revolution? Radical or incremental? Often, those who are the boss frame up the changes differently than those who are doing daily operations. Understand their perception, not just your own.

Second, sit down with your boss and dialogue about performance expectations. Try and figure out what your boss is trying to accomplish and what are their goals. From experience, these may be different. Often, they are trying to lower the chaos around them to a manageable level while still focusing on their goals.

Third, clarify your role in the organization and the changes that are taking place. Many times your perception of your role and your boss’s perception may be completely different. Get clear about this sooner than later.

Finally, clarify your level of control. Most of the time when encountering a boss who is resistant to change, the problem is that you think you have lots of control and they do not want you to have that much control.

After discussing this subject for over 13 years, here are some of the best answers from a diversity of leaders and managers who have dealt with this issue:

- Speak truth to power. Know what you are talking about with facts and figures.

- Ask yourself “why did they pick your boss for the job?”. This information will help you maintain perspective.

- Face your fear.

- Do not give away your ability to choose.

- Deal with your addictions.

For those of you who want to explore this subject in greater detail and from a bigger picture perspective, here is a recently published article by Margaret Wheatley called “Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host.” While the article is not completely focused on resistance, it does offer some excellent insights into why leaders struggle in the world of change and organizational transformation. Years ago, we read her book, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, Berrett-Koehler, 2005, for a Spring From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable. It was excellent and so is this article. Happy reading!

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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