Recently a CEO of a tech start-up contacted me for help. He had been fulfilling the role of marketing manager in addition to his role as CEO. And now that the product slate is getting more complex, he knew he would no longer have the time to effectively manage product marketing in addition to everything else that was on his plate. He is ready to hire for that position, but he’s meeting resistance.
When he spoke with the product marketers who would report to a new marketing manager, they didn’t think they needed someone in that role. They couldn’t see what value that person would add. The CEO asked me for coaching. Should he make an independent decision to hire someone, without buy-in from the product marketing team? Or should he allow their resistance to get in the way of what he knows he needs to do to support business growth?
If this sounds familiar, it’s because resistance to change is to be expected. It’s normal. It comes in many forms – confusion, lack of understanding, pushback or criticism, sabotage, easy agreement, deflection, or silence, to name a few.
How a leader responds to resistance can make all the difference between change efforts that move forward effectively and those that derail.
How Should You Handle Resistance?
Do you think of resistance as “getting in the way,” something to be “overcome”? Do you get angry or frustrated? Defensive? Do you push back? Ignore it?
Although understandable, these responses don’t usually have the results you want. In fact they are counterproductive; they turn the resistance into a power struggle. Instead of diminishing, the resistance increases or goes underground. If you decide to power through to win, it’s likely you will lose the energy and commitment of those needed to make the change successful.
Resistance serves an important and positive purpose – it protects us from what we think will be harmful. Those who are expressing resistance don’t usually think they are “resisting.” They are simply expressing caution – raising concerns that are valid based on their vantage point and understanding. Their resistance contains valuable information that you need to understand.
Resistance generally occurs because of a difference in perspectives. By exploring those differences, instead of pushing against them, you can work with the resistance.
The most effective response to resistance is to be respectful and curious. This will enable you to move toward the resistance to understand and learn from it.
When you propose change you are attempting to influence others. Resistance is their attempt to influence you. People don’t resist change; they resist “being changed” – they want some influence over what happens to them – we all do. If you are genuinely willing to be influenced you will be able to work with the resistance, instead of pushing against.
How Effective Leaders Approach Change
This doesn’t mean abandoning the change. It does mean adjusting the approach to address the issues contained in the resistance. Instead of pushing against it, work with the resistance to improve your change effort, build relationships and gain the commitment needed for the change to succeed.
Here are some key points about resistance to a proposed change that can help leaders respond effectively.
- Expect resistance. It’s normal.
- Treat those expressing resistance with respect.
- Resistance serves an important purpose. It is meant to protect those expressing it, keeping them safe. By viewing it this way you can begin to see ways of channeling it.
- Remember that resistance is a form of energy, not positive or negative. It is one way people engage with the change. The energy gives you something to work with. It’s better than apathy or no response.
- Get curious about it. Be willing to be influenced. Learn from it to improve the effectiveness of your change effort.
In Aaron’s situation, I advised him to talk with the product marketers to understand their perspective. He would lead more effectively if he could see what they see. I also advised him to discuss the company’s need to support growth and to help them see what he sees. Finally, with that shared perspective, he can engage them in how to address the challenges posed by expanding the product line.
Instead of pushing against their resistance, he is joining it to understand the obstacles to the change he is proposing. He is digging deeper to understand their concerns and inviting them to partner in meeting the challenge that their company faces. By incorporating their input into his decision-making and communicating how they influenced him, Aaron will increase the probability that they will be committed to the decision he makes.
Be Ready for Resistance, No Matter How Small the Change
Whether suggesting that an employee or colleague try something different, asking your team to move in a new direction, introducing a new strategy, or implementing a new system application, you are proposing change. Be prepared. It is most likely to elicit some form of resistance.
Leading change effectively means responding in a way that respects and engages people in a way that creates mutual understanding and allows for mutual influence. The more effective you are at working with the resistance, the more you will harness and work with its energy to enable the change to succeed.