A Deeper Dive Into the Real Work of Resistance Management
Written by Josy Jamieson
Managing stakeholder resistance can be challenging. But when I see clients treating stakeholder groups like they’re the problem, I realize they’re jumping to the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately, practitioners sometimes develop a defense mechanism around resistance that causes them to miss the opportunity to help people transition through a change.
Resistance as a Defense Mechanism
The idea that difficult changes are caused by resistant people is a common defense mechanism in change management. If the change isn’t going as planned, if people are experiencing barriers in their ADKAR journeys, change practitioners can blame it on stakeholder resistance. But we fall back on this idea too quickly. Resistance is actually an opportunity we need to embrace—because it’s reflecting where the gaps are in our approach. Change plans are only as good as your most resistant stakeholder group. Dealing with resistance is not where our work stops but where it begins.
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6 Resistance Management Focus Areas
The Prosci Methodology includes 10 effective, research-based tactics for managing resistance, but the work really only starts there. Developing effective skills in resistance management requires practice and an understanding that there’s far more to the methodology than executing the tactics on our to-do lists. We must examine our work even more closely in key ways.
1. Uncover hesitancy early and address it
Hesitancy is a failure to act because of uncertainty. When change teams experience pushback from stakeholders, they may conclude that the group is resistant. Consider that the feedback reflects hesitancy and not resistance. Think of resistance as a factor or spectrum. One end is hesitation, and the other end is full refusal. Where is the issue on the spectrum? What is the right intensity of resolution? And which employee-facing roles are most effective to be involved?
As implementers of change, our opportunity is to recast the resistant behaviors in a more positive way. Are you engaging your sponsor with the coaching and support they need to be successful? Perhaps the future state is unclear. If so, you should work with sponsors and managers to develop strong Awareness and Desire messages. Are you using consistent messaging? Are you utilizing the 10 Aspects of Change Impact to clearly describe how people will be impacted by the change? Are you sharing information in a logical order? Not your logical order, but that of the person receiving the information. Are you using visual cues that enable someone to latch on and truly grasp what the organization is doing? A change practitioner needs to pull back and figure out what’s not resonating with people.
Prosci's 10 Aspects of Change Impact
2. Reflect on your contribution to the problem
When managing resistance, it’s is critical to consider how you, the practitioner, contribute to the problem. Whenever you see resistant behaviors from people impacted by a change, you need to ask yourself:
- Am I actively listening to what they're saying? What do I have to set aside to be able to really hear? What part of the process am I not utilizing?
- Have I aided the sponsor and managers to describe a strong why? Has the message been crafted in a way that is clear, speaks to the audience, and is easily understandable?
- Am I aligning the message with the right senders of the messages?
- Did I work with the people sending the message to ensure that they were comfortable with the message. Did I set them up for success in delivering the message?
- Am I offering the right currency of their Desire when explaining the WIIFM (What's in it for me)?
- Am I using a telling style when I should be using a communicating style?
- Have I taken a roadmap approach to really lean in when explaining things?
- Did I establish a feedback loop to ensure that I am hearing the stakeholder concerns, questions and feedback?
3. Avoid labeling
Are you managing a change with very resistant stakeholders? Is your sponsor a hopeless case? Maybe people are not behaving properly, or they’re just plain difficult. The change plans are not the problem—it’s a specific group of people who are never going to adopt these changes because they just don’t get it!
As change practitioners, we don't get the luxury of writing off groups of impacted people by labeling them as resistant. It’s up to us to apply everything in the methodology and our change toolkits. To be effective, we must always be aware of the danger of preconceived notions about people and groups.
4. Give people space
People often need room to do things their way. In Prosci’s Top 10 Tactics for Managing Resistance, we call this focusing on the what and letting go of the how. Trying to implement a return-to-the-office policy? Let people share in crafting the policy or how they would like their teams to work together.
Prosci's Top 10 Tactics for Managing Resistance
5. Set aside emotion
As we manage resistance, we must look objectively at the problem. Often when we’re into the day-to-day of projects and following along with the methodology, we can start to forget the best practices because we're so caught up in the conversation or what's happening at that moment. An understanding of ADKAR is perfect for those moments as the conversation is illuminating the barrier point. Try saying, “I’m hearing some hesitation around the WIIFM. Tell me more.”
Use the Prosci Methodology, tools and assessment to guide you. The entire methodology is created in a manner that sequences the conversations. As you work through the methodology, you will find that a conversation is an input or insight into the next conversation. When starting your change journey, adhere to Proxima for that guided path because it helps you stay focused on the intent of the work and keeps you from getting lost in the conversation.
6. Flip the resistance conversation
Change the conversation from a left-brain focus on data and research to a right-brain focus on “how might we?” Starting with empathy for the person or people being impacted helps you see the change through a new lens and walk a mile in their shoes. Doing so reveals the possible ways to solve for resistance and break through barriers instead of assigning blame.
The Benefits of Resistance
During a long, complex change, it can be easier say, “Well, there are anchors and there are sailors,” and “These people are just resistant.” Maybe that’s true at times, but we go there too quickly. Solving for resistance is about holding a mirror to your work and seeing the gaps. And when you do it well, you will ultimately be grateful for resistance because it's showing you where you need to focus and where you need to do the real work to be successful with change.