A simple reality of change – personal or business – is that you just expect to encounter some resistance. That’s the nature of the beast. We are used to doing something in one way and then it kind of becomes an organisational habit. Suddenly, someone comes along with another way to do it, and the natural reaction is to resist, question and be a little cynical of it. Eventually, we accept (to varying degrees) the new way of doing things, mostly because we begin to understand the change and what it means. For some it takes longer, but gradually we get the majority on board.

But what should be done when the minority who just don’t get on board include some senior Executives?; In the context of the change, these are individuals who have some stake in the change (be it financial or otherwise). Their lack of engagement, despite attempts at understanding and resolving their reasons for resistance, could potentially de-rail the changes and erode the business benefits.

For all you seasoned change experts out there, I am sure at this stage your brain is reeling with all the ‘change 101’ stuff. However, the story that I am telling here is one of several client organisations where all the good change management practice has been applied to sell the change; to get hearts and minds engaged; and to build commitment not just compliance. After all – the majority are on board! Yet, despite this critical mass of engagement, there remain 1 or 2 senior ‘resistors’ who are throwing curve balls, stalling decisions and spreading false assumptions both in the boardroom and outside it.

A third of change projects fail* because of a lack of senior management support.

A third of change projects fail* because of a lack of senior management support and I often see many Executives watching the resistors at work for too long before laying down the law and making some tough decisions. The sensitivity of such situations is understandable; these are senior and often well-respected leaders who hold critical roles in the organisation and naturally there is a risk of losing or alienating them, if their behaviour is confronted. But if you have correctly implemented a programme of change through the ‘Sell’ approach of engagement, involvement and communication – and you know you will have done it correctly because you will have got the majority of people on board – then there comes a point where it
is no longer ‘natural’ to have such resistance to change.

At this point, I’d encourage more of a ‘Tell’ approach to dissolving the resistance. An approach that can be informed and constructed by considering the following questions as your preparation.

How objective is the resistor being in their claims?

For example, is there data and evidence to back up what they are saying? What have they done to constructively and professionally resolve any working issues before escalating the situation? What is at threat for this individual and therefore are emotions and/or politics clouding their judgement?

How is the individual being held to account for the impact of their resistance?

There are two dimensions to this. Firstly, do all senior stakeholders have some ‘skin in the game’ – to achieve major business transformation, a link to bonus or incentives is an effective proactive mechanism to avoiding insurmountable resistance. However, on a more reactive level, accountability can still be reinforced with similar measures. For example, if the resistor’s actions are somehow delaying the project or causing extra costs to be incurred then who is bearing the brunt of these additional costs? All too often it is the Executive Sponsor of the project who gets tagged with project budget overruns. Perhaps if the costs were reallocated to the resistor’s cost centre then this in itself may accelerate resolution of the conflict.

Has anyone had the tough conversation?

Sometimes we need to pull rank and recruit one of the Board members or Executives to simply have the tough conversation with the senior leaders who are resisting. It’s a good opportunity to evaluate whether the individuals concerned are actually right for the organisation moving forward given the new shape/size of the changes in the pipeline. Is the resistance a signal that his or her time is coming to an end and that you need a fresh recruit in that space to allow the new organisation to flourish. ‘Tough love’ re-establishes boundaries and expectations that have become blurred and can be effective if done constructively using facts, evidence and with clearly articulated consequences for any continued destructive behaviours.

I fully advocate investing time and effort to engaging the wider organisation intrinsically using a ‘Sell’ approach in a large scale change that the business is investing in. However, all too often I see Executives allowing senior-level blockages to build up. The ‘Tell’ approach can be effective (as a last resort) but needs backbone and heart to follow through. If you’ve got some non-movers where stalling and inaction is becoming detrimental to the project this alternative (or complimentary) ‘Tell’ approach can be an effective strategy for those key individuals who seem to be spending longer than necessary in the dip of their change curve.

Do you have a related story to share on this topic? How have you seen the ‘Tell’ approach being applied (effectively!) in your business to overcome resistance to organisational change?