Joni showed up at her boss Bob’s office more frustrated than he’d ever seen her. Joni was a relatively new supervisor and had been developing well, but on this day, she seemed different. When Bob asked what was wrong, her frustration came out immediately.
“What do you do when people don’t want to change,” she asked. Bob smiled and asked her to explain. “You know the new system we are implementing?” she said. “Well, after this long change process it seems like most everyone is finally onboard, except for two people (she went on without naming names). I can’t figure out what their deal is, and it is frustrating!”
I’m guessing you likely have been both Joni and Bob at some point in your career and probably one of those unnamed employees as well! So, as a leader, what do you do when people don’t want to change?
Here are seven action steps to consider:
- Understand the source of the reluctance. People have a reason – rational or emotional (or likely a combination of the two) – why they don’t want to make a particular change. The first mistake leaders make is assuming you know why. Even if your people have shared their reasons in the past, it is important to ask them about their concerns and reservations this time. Do this in as authentic and non-threatening way as you can. Your goal is to truly understand what they are thinking and feeling about the change.
- Shut up and listen. Your goal isn’t to convince them or influence them at this point. Your goal is only to listen to their responses. Respond only with follow-up questions designed to truly understand where they are in regards to the change.
- Determine the real level of resistance. After asking questions and listening to the answers, you will have a better understanding of how big a deal this is, for them, for you and for the change effort overall. Recognize that doing this may, in itself, be tremendously valuable. Also, the chance to describe thoughts and feelings often helps the resisters understand their feelings better. If you can’t figure it out on your own, ask employees how big the deal is to them.
- Acknowledge how they feel. People appreciate being heard in a nonjudgmental way, and they need you to acknowledge their opinions. Notice I didn’t say “agree with them.” Sometimes you can move past their concerns by “agreeing to disagree.” And sometimes, once they have been heard they are often ready to move on with the change, even if it isn’t what they would have done had they had the choice.
- Recruit others to help influence resisters. You may not be the right or best person to convince others to buy in. Maybe you don’t have a communication style match. Maybe employees don’t want to hear from a supervisor. Maybe the stars are out of alignment. Whatever the reason, ask other people who support the change to discuss the benefits of the change.
- Determine your next steps. Perhaps employees are whining about the change, but they are at least executing it, even reluctantly. Or perhaps they are causing major problems, sabotaging efforts and halting progress. Whatever the situation, recognize that while you need to be patient with people, at some point their resistance or reluctance becomes a performance issue, if not outright insubordination.
- Let it go. If the issue is small or is more of an irritant to you than a roadblock to the change, let it go. Set expectations and consequences, and coach employees to improve. If that doesn’t work and an employee is still resistant, take the necessary disciplinary actions. The reality in many situations, not everyone will change. At that point you must be willing to let those people go,without blaming yourself.