Resistance to change – really?

Posted by Robert Beauchemin on Apr 30, 2008

I was reading a post at LeadershipNow entitled Getting the Information You Need. It referred to an article written by Mark Ronald and Robert Shaw from the Leader to Leader institute entitled Developing Peripheral Vision.

They warn to watch for signs of resistance to change:

Silence: In leadership teams, members who don't support the trend of a decision often simply disengage from the dialogue and remain silent rather than pose a contrary point of view—particularly if the leader appears to support the decision or the group is moving quickly to closure. Who has checked out?
Non-answers: People can opt out by appearing to agree with the leader when, in fact, they do not. "If you think it's the right decision, that's good enough for me."
Omissions: It is often what is not said that is most critical—particularly on issues that the leader believes will be problematic.
Specific language: People surface their true feelings in hundreds of subtle ways. Leaders need to pay attention to the specific use of words that are flags suggesting that more discussion or follow-up is needed.
Offline input: Often, the insights people bring to a leader (or each other) during the breaks of meetings or in informal hallway conversations are more important than what is said in formal discussions.
E-mail traffic: In many firms, e-mail offers insight into potential issues that may require a leader's attention. For example, an overly formal e-mail message with multiple people copied (or blind copied) is often a protective action taken by a team member with concerns.

Those six behaviours are part of what I call "background conversations" which are typical incarnations of "passive resistance" – the worst kind of resistance. Background conversations occur when one's head says YES and one's heart say NO; when one lets other under the belief that agreement exist, when in fact it does not.

What I don't find discussed much however is that such problem should not be a Leader-subordinate issue. Most leaders have, or should have, developed a leadership team, and in there lies a powerful tool. In companies I lead, we openly talked about background conversations at the leadership team level.

When Ronald and Shaw say "know your people", the one thing we already know for certain about your people is that there is always resistance to change. So, the CEO has to establish [as early as possible in his/her tenure] a leadership model based on the assumption that there will be resistance to change. The best way of dealing with change is to establish a "change leadership" culture at the senior leadership level, and allow open and frank argumentation, and where, in the initial stage, disagreeing is OK to a degree.

By getting the leadership team on that page from the get go [regarding change leadership], more eyes on the watch for signs of weak support, no only with subordinates, but more importantly amongst peers. I have countless examples where one member of the leadership team was "taken on" by the rest of the team, without the need for CEO influence. They used "we're on the same boat and have to row in the same direction" message. It was no-longer the problem of the CEO, but that of the leadership team. This behaviour propagates through the organization and sets in as a cultural characteristic.

In this way, the leadership team become the primary guiding coalition which can propagate the vision and the plan.