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3 Ways Change Leaders Prevent, Minimize and Manage (or Create) Resistance to Change

If leaders don't handle the change process effectively, it will likely turn into a how-to-create-resistance 101 guide.

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A key attribute of change leadership is one's ability to prevent, minimize and manage resistance. As an emergent manager more than a decade ago, I was leading a high-profile change project. Excited by the opportunity to fight resistance, I set the wheel of change in motion. I believed it was human nature to resist change. I donned my shiny armor for the battle.

Thankfully, after a few years of driving complex change, my viewpoint has changed. Resistance is no longer a battleground for me, but rather an insightful leadership clue.

Let's first describe some of the key triggers for resistance (to change):

  1. Not understanding what's happening

  2. Being uncertain of what it means for the person, how it will affect them, etc.

  3. Being fearful of the unknown and comfortable with familiarity

  4. Feeling proud of their current way of doing things

  5. Seeing many past changes with no positive outcome

Related: How to Become a Successful Change Leader

Change begins at an individual level; it is personal. For the change to succeed, it relies intrinsically on people's willingness to adopt it. People's emotional and intellectual transition into the change affects their willingness. It goes without saying that resistance will surface if leaders don't support this transition.

Is it human nature to always resist change? I say this is a cliché and therefore my answer is no, it is not human nature. After all, people have reasons to resist. Change can be uncomfortable, but discovery and curiosity are also part of the human equation. We are born with innate curiosity. Children are endlessly curious creatures, eagerly seeking to explore and make sense of new things. If they feel safe and comfortable, a changing environment is fun and exciting.

Here are three focus areas that will help leaders to make sense of this organizational phenomenon — resistance to change:

1. Anticipate and prevent resistance

The best preparation for a battle is to avoid it. Where viable, sensing and mitigating the problem is better than all the fixing efforts. Here are two tips:

  • Do the change management appropriately: During change, people will ask questions, such as "What is happening, and what does this mean for me?" It's important for leaders to communicate early, involve the key players in the change process and have a solid plan.

  • Pay attention to concerns at the beginning: Change is a lived experience. It has a past, present, and hopefully, a future. There might be pockets of emotional dips when people remember a previous bad experience. Supporting people to climb out of these dips requires skillful change leaders who listen and take action to ease their minds and hearts. Would employees, colleagues or team members resist if they felt at ease?

Related: The 5 Most Important Aspects of Leading Others in Times of Change

2. Welcome resistance as a signal rather than a barrier

Here are useful tips to see through and beyond resistance:

  • Unearth the root cause: The true nature of the resistance might differ from what's on the surface. When a child cries, we instinctively seek to understand the cause. Are they feeling unsafe, in pain, hungry or scared? If they are old enough, we ask them. When an employee is dragging their feet, they might feel that the ground is falling from underneath them. Individuals may resist change due to the fear of what they must give up. Perhaps their identity, pride or status. An effective change leader listens, acknowledges the fear and takes action to help people find their footing.

  • Discuss the issue and be personal: One of my clients — a large healthcare provider — was updating its appointment booking process from a manual system to an efficient tech solution. Mary was the leader of the booking team. She hadn't been sick in 20 years. But when the change was introduced, she was signed off with stress. I met her when she returned to work. She frowned, gazing at the booking folders. "I worked for years to build this great system," she lamented. "Erasing this process feels like they are deleting me."

This was such a revelation. It was not about the new system or the technology, yet the fear of loss. Loss of existence. The immediate step was to acknowledge her grief, then work with Mary to revitalize her 20 years of spark.

3. Create conditions for social networks and relationships

Challenging times call for a greater focus on wellness and resilience. Change is a social phenomenon and here are two suggestions to advance resilience through social settings:

  • Harness informal networks and relationships: Building informal networks and social opportunities at work will nurture bonds and relationships. Within these networks, people feel safer to lean in, raise their opinions and express their concerns.

  • Involve shining personnel: Middle managers are often key players of change programs, as they are close to the teams. Investment in developing middle managers as change champions is a great way to boost morale.

Related: How to Manage Resistance to Change Within an Agile Organization

I coach incremental change programs rather than radical shifts. A study by INSEAD Business School illustrates that undertaking a small positive change can indeed be easier than maintaining the status quo. Babies learn to walk one step at a time. They take a few wobbly steps; they fall and try again. A gradual change program is not dissimilar.

Above all, how masterfully — or not — leaders handle change management affects how people respond to change. As change leaders, there is no need for shiny armor, but the ability to illuminate an exciting path, generate commitment to ignite people's spark and neutralize resistance.

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