As human beings, change is all around us; and as human beings, we resist change. Sometimes that resistance is momentary, sometimes it lasts for a lifetime. To be more effective leaders, we must understand the dynamics of change, why people (including ourselves) resist, and how to overcome that resistance.
One of the most common statements you will hear about any change is: “We’ve tried that before.”
Sources of the Statement
There are several possible sources of this statement/sentiment, including, it really has been tried before! Often though, the resister sees similarities to what is being proposed and assumes it to be the same, or the communication about the change hasn’t been very successful and so the assumption is that the proposed change is the same as the past experience.
The basic psychology is pretty straightforward: if we view something as not having worked in the past, why would we want to try it again? Intellectually this is a bad plan!
Remember though, especially if you are the promoter/leader of the change, that your understanding of the change and theirs could be different. You may not have lived through what they are thinking about, or they may not really understand what is being proposed.
Until you can get past this impasse of understanding, the resistance won’t go away; in fact it might get stronger and begin to impact other parts of the working relationship.
How to Respond
Here are five strategies for dealing with this specific change resistance:
- Acknowledge their concerns. When you make your first step an acknowledgement of their concern (even if you don’t understand yet or agree), you change the dynamic of the conversation and reduce the resistance.
- Ask more questions. Stop short of selling your proposal. When you hear the “We’ve tried that before” comment, stop and ask what they are referring to. Seek to understand exactly what was tried, and what the results were from their perspective. You will build trust and better understand their concerns. You might even learn that they are right, and that insight could cause you to adapt or change your approach.
- Learn when it was tried (and what happened). Some people will remember a situation but forget that it was tried 15 years ago! Not only that, sometimes the results weren’t as negative as remembered, when the light of reflection is placed on that experience.
- Ask people what has changed. The world around you is different than when this approach was last tried – after all, a lot has changed in 15 years (or even 15 months)! I will often comment how much the world has changed since that last try. . . and the truth is the situation surrounding the change is likely different too. Once people see that the situations aren’t an “apples to apples” comparison, often some of the resistance will lessen.
- Ask people for their suggestions. Perhaps the approach is set, but even if that ship has sailed, there are likely tweaks that can be made to how a change is being implemented. Often when people’s resistance has been acknowledged and understood, they are far more likely to engage in the implementation of the change. Isn’t that what you wanted anyway?
It may be true that this change has been tried before.
It may also be true that the world and situation is different now, which means that the result may be different too.
Acknowledge people and their concerns, listen to understand why they feel the way they do, and you are off to a good start to understand and overcome “We’ve tried that before.”