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, well, 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 hopefully but almost rhetorically. 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 on-board, 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 it to truly understand what they are thinking and feeling about the change. (In order to do that you must . . .)
- 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 and listening to them 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 themselves. Be willing to ask exactly how big of a deal this change, and their resistance, is.
- Acknowledge how they feel. People appreciate being heard in a nonjudgmental way – it happens so rarely. People need to be acknowledged for their opinion. 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.
- Get others to help influence. If the resister still needs help being influenced to change, you may not be the right or best person. Maybe you don’t have a communication style match. Maybe they don’t want to hear from their supervisor. Maybe the stars are out of alignment. Whatever the reason, encourage them to talk to their peers or others who are on board who might be able to relate the benefits of the change more successfully than you.
- Determine your next steps. This is contextual to the change itself. Perhaps the reluctance isn’t a show stopper. Perhaps they are whining about the change but doing the new procedure. Or perhaps they are a major road block. Whatever the situation, recognize that while we need to be patient with people (not everyone will come on board with any change at the same time); at some point their resistance or reluctance is a performance issue. When the situation is a performance issue, use your coaching skills as appropriate and necessary.
- 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. If the performance-issue coaching doesn’t work and the person is still resistant, take the necessary disciplinary actions. The reality in many situations not everyone will like or want to work under the changed scenario. If you have a large enough group, there will always be someone whose mind won’t change. At that point you must be willing to let them go, and not blame yourself.
Use these steps as a framework to help you answer the always challenging, “What do I do when people don’t want to change?” Use them yourself, or when you are coaching other leaders to hopefully make this challenge less of a concern in the future.