06/02/2015

By Andrew Morris, CEO, the Academy for Chief Executives

Your business may need to change in fundamental or incremental ways this year. It may be necessary to re-think your strategic priorities. You may need to take a fresh perspective and move outside your comfort zone. But be warned: doing so is likely to be met with initial resistance.

Generally, human beings are resistant to change. We like stability and the status quo and research suggests that our fear of loss has a far stronger pull on us than any potential gains that change might bring us.

So to overcome resistance to change, you need demonstrate the reasons it needs to happen and paint a vivid picture: what will happen if the business stays the same? Focus on what is to be gained, rather than what will be lost, and outline a clear vision of where the organisation is going and why.

Different business scenarios will raise different issues. For example, anything that involves a major expansion or the melding together of two organisations through a merger or acquisition can be fraught with pitfalls because everyone is so intent on the practicalities that no-one considers what will happen after they are completed. Not considering the impact of this on individuals is where things can go wrong.

The scope and scale of the change will determine how it is handled, but one thing is always the same: a good strategy isn’t enough – you need buy-in from everyone involved. And when you come up against resistance, you need to deal with it if you want those who will be affected by change to embrace it.

Tackle issues head on: Don’t ignore the rumblings. Un-blocking resistance is absolutely critical to implementing changes. If unchecked, it can be like a cancer inside the organisation, eating it away from within. It may not be immediately apparent but it will come out sooner or later, so tackle it head on. There may also be areas of the business where you might meet more resistance than others: some organisations may have an ‘old guard’ that will resist even the most sensible ideas.

Involve influencers: There are people who have the ear of their colleagues, irrespective of where they are in the hierarchy. Identify these people and make sure they are on board. They can be your change ambassadors and cheerleaders.

Face the irrational: There’s a rational element to leading change – arguing the business case, presenting the facts. But there is also a strong emotional element. People might be nodding their heads, but inside they may feel very insecure. Fear — of not being able to do something new, of failure — can cause people to freeze in the face of change.

Make it personal: When change is in the air, most people will be asking, ‘how is it going to affect me?’ That means their jobs, rewards, and future development. As such it’s important to communicate at an individual level. One to one rather than one-to-many will be both more effective and more personal. Business owners and managers should speak to people individually or in small groups to explain how the change will affect them personally and how their contributions will impact the business. Give people a sense of why they matter to the success of the initiative.

Shared ownership: The senior team may be sold on the business benefits and will be preoccupied with meeting deadlines, but you have got to have everyone on the bus. Change without consultation will always trigger resentment. So make people believe it’s their idea and genuinely listen to their input and concerns. If you move ahead without hearing people out, you’ll breed dissent, and the execution of your new strategy will be very poor.

Tune in: Resistance won’t always show itself in sabotage or lack of co-operation, it may be a more passive drag on morale. So stay attuned to how different groups perceive your change plans. One idea is to draw a picture: when a division of aerospace firm BAE Systems instigated a major change programme, it brought in an artist to illustrate how different divisions viewed the proposals. The resulting image spoke volumes about where and why the programme had stalled, and acted as a prompt for more open discussions about people’s grievances.

Give it time: Accept the inevitable disruption and dissent that goes along with change. Let things percolate and settle, and allow for people to make the mental transition to the new way of doing things. Keep repeating key messages — people don’t always take it all in at first.

Pace yourself: Take the change at a realistic pace: too fast and you’ll spook the horses, too slow and you can lose momentum. Consider the timing in relation to any cyclical issues specific to your sector, too. Few retailers would risk a major strategic shift during their busy Christmas period, for example.