Overcoming resistance to change
In this series, we interview a respected change leader to discuss overcoming resistance to change and the lessons that made them who they are today. This month, it’s Annette Andresen, a Transformation Leader who has guided global organisations to achieve their vision for change and is one of only 20 accredited Change Masters in the UK.
People resist change. Or do they? It may be the epitaph to many a failed initiative but Annette thinks there’s more smokescreen here than reality. When it comes to experts, her voice is one that needs to be heard. After all, she’s managed change initiatives affecting everything from 400 to 40,000 employees and done it across the globe.
In her opinion, you have to look in the mirror first before putting the blame elsewhere. People around the world embrace change each and every day. They look forward to it – whether it is new TV series, new phones, new foods, new friends, new houses or new careers – and all of these changes come with their negatives and uncertainties. Rather than ‘combating’ discontents, she thinks you need to embrace human nature as the enabler to making change irresistible.
Here are the lessons that have stood her well in leading change around the world.
Lesson 1: Don’t confuse poor communication with resistance to change
“Often,” says Annette. “It’s not resistance you’re facing at all. It just looks like it. People are different and approach things in different ways. It’s easy to misread hostility towards the way change is being presented as resistance to change itself.”
She believes we are often guilty of having a fairly binary view of how people react to change, you’re either with the programme or against it, and that’s simply not what’s happening. Colleagues will have a whole variety of different ways of looking at the world and lumping them together is counter-productive.
The light bulb moment for Annette came very early on in her career. She was leading the change team of a €500m SAP roll out and having trouble with the Head of PMO. He kept pulling her plan apart needlessly time and again on minor details and all she was looking for was agreement in principle to the high level strategy. By chance she went on a Myers Briggs course at this time and that gave her inspiration, “It wasn’t so much the Myers Briggs elements but how the course was run. It forced me to consider my own personality traits and those of others. It made me think, ‘Maybe this guy isn’t the problem. I’m asking why he won’t meet me half way and perhaps it’s me that isn’t meeting him there?’”
To explain, this Head of PMO was a detail-orientated thinker. He liked to examine the finer points and build up the best approach. She liked to think big about the right things to do and then look at the detail. They thought differently. His pulling apart of her plans was really him engaging with her strategy and trying to understand it. Equally, her insistence on agreeing the high level first before coming down into the detail was a refusal to let him add value. Within a week of realising this, she says, the relationship bloomed and the resulting programme was all the better for it. She’s taken this lesson to heart and whenever she encounters resistance to change, she looks first at how she is communicating and how the other party likes to be communicated with.
Lesson 2: Watch out for the quiet ones
To Annette’s view, vocal resistance is easy to work with because it’s a known quantity and it’s addressing its concerns to you straightforwardly. “It’s the quiet ones that you really have to watch out for,” she says. “These are not necessarily people who are quiet by nature. What we’re talking about here is quiet resistors, people who are either purposefully or subconsciously refusing to tackle their misgivings. It may be they have an irrational objection they can’t articulate. Equally, it’s sometimes a personal agenda they don’t want brought out into the open. And while you’ve been occupied winning over the loudest, the quiet ones have been undermining support for the programme unchecked. By the time you realise there is a problem, it might be out of control.”
These individuals are hard to identify, that’s the very nature of this kind of change resistance. Usually, they present themselves like any other participant, no more or less willing, but behind appearances they are utterly toxic to the change agenda.
“You need to listen carefully and work back to where rumours and discontent is coming from,” She believes. “You need to find a way to communicate constructively with them quickly before their influence damages the programme or themselves.”
Lesson 3: Culture is an unhelpful stereotype
Often, when there is resistance to change, it is the culture that is blamed for failure. “Culture is such an over-used word,” says Annette. “It’s become little more than meaningless because it’s used as an excuse for not changing: ‘It’s the way things are here’. In my view, this is poor categorisation and needs to stop. You even hear of failed programmes being blamed on the culture of a particular country – that’s just barmy. I’ve worked in countries around the world and whatever people have said to me about national working culture has turned out to be circumspect at best. Ultimately, cultures are made up of behaviours, people can and do change their behaviours. Often the difference is training managers to manage those behaviours, not just the tasks.”
“To give an example,” she continues. “I recently led a change programme at a large international engineering firm and part of it was moving everyone to a matrix way of working. This was at odds with the culture, that is to say the past behaviours of the company. Equally, because it was an engineering environment, any ambiguity was harder for them to cope with than it would be in, say, a sales or HR environment. Now, when you break it down, all big change programmes involve staff doing things differently and managing through some degree of ambiguity – there’s nothing special about that but they felt it very intensely.
“The answer in this case was to partner with middle management, to coach them on managing behaviours and supporting staff in breaking down ambiguity. For example, simple changes such as setting up one-to-ones with staff dedicated to discussing performance, objectives and ways of working in addition to their usual one-to-ones that were focused on tasks.
“Big organisations often measure culture change through employee engagement surveys. I understand why they do that but, for me, it’s often more straightforward than that: Are you getting the desired business outcome? Are the behaviours changing to help your business?”
Lesson 4: Never underestimate the power of the middle
Can training managers really be the answer to change? After all, middle management has a reputation, particularly when it comes to resistance to change. It’s no surprise, thinks Annette. In a world concerned with bottom-up versus top-down change, the middle finds itself ‘on the menu’ more often than ‘at the table’. A few years ago, she had a very different experience working with middle management.
“I’d been tasked with delivering a customer-centricity programme for a 2,000 employee company. It entailed a lot of behaviour and process change. The sponsor was great but the rest of the senior leaders were fundamentally disinterested. Without executive support it looked an impossible task.
“I chose to collaborate with middle management because there wasn’t any other way, and the outcome produced was excellent. The NPS score of some teams jumped by 40 points and stayed there. If you know anything about NPS, you know that’s huge! It was a fantastic difference in a short space of time and proved sustainable – without any senior leadership team support – because middle management supported it.
“It was a revelation to me then. We know middle managers can offer the biggest resistance to change, they often have the most to lose. But we don’t talk enough about the other side of the coin; they’re a powerful ally that is capable of seeing both the big picture and the practical solutions in their area. As a change leader, you can’t be everywhere at once or solve every issue but with middle management’s help, you have it covered.”
When Annette is managing transformation programmes over dozens of countries and tens of thousands of employees, strong middle management engagement has been the multiplying factor she’s needed to get the job done. “The catch is that you need to put significant investment upfront, making this group feel special and valued,” she says. “You’ve got to show them you’re serious. And you’ve got to take time training them and empowering them to enact change, so it’s not always easy but the results tend to speak for themselves.”
Lesson 5: Persistence and personal resilience
Annette’s last piece of advice is that personal resilience is key. The gap between a valiant failure and an overwhelming success is very narrow, “You can’t follow change models blindly. They over simplify,” she says. “In my experience, there’s no reason why awareness of change should lead to desire for it without a helping hand. You have to go the extra mile to take people with you on the journey. You will deal with difficult people and have to take on-board different opinions. As a novice, it can be angering and sometimes humiliating. But you have to check your ego. The question you need to keep asking yourself is how to turn it into something better? How to turn it into something that would succeed with those individuals? It’s about putting yourself in their shoes. What’s going to be the answer from their point of view? What risks are they likely to envisage? How to predict those challenges? And how best to counter them – ideally in advance? That’s where stakeholder engagement really becomes a reality.”
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