There is no such thing as resistance to change! – Canadian Government Executive

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October 10, 2014

There is no such thing as resistance to change!

I was waiting in line to have a smoked meat sandwich at one of Montreal’s most famous smoked meat restaurants: Schwartz. It was a very pleasant fall day and we were lining up outside on St-Laurent boulevard, as a group of anti-meat pro-vegans stood across the sidewalk screaming at us how shameful it was to eat meat, pleading to save the animals, stating how the planet cannot support everybody eating beef. The lady running the demonstration profoundly believed in her cause and was screaming that conviction through a megaphone in our ears less than five feet away.

I stood there thinking “well, at least this lineup isn’t going to be boring today!” My daughter, who was waiting with me commented: “why is she doing this? Does she think she’s going to convince people that way? It’s useless!” I couldn’t help agreeing with her. I understood the demonstrators point of view and somewhat agreed with parts of it. However, standing in front of a lineup of hungry carnivores and screaming at us that the meal we are starving for is disgusting, unethical or irresponsible is probably not going to change many people`s minds.

This all reminded me about the Change Management principles I learned when I was being “indoctrinated” as a Manager: People resist change. That’s what we learned and that’s something we can count on. And our challenge as managers is to overcome that resistance, to steer the resistors towards performing the change we are proposing or need to implement.

As I went through diverse management assignments, I started diligently using the learned principles with some good successes but also some outlying dissatisfaction. I faced challenging reactions I didn’t know how to handle. The most difficult for me was not resistance, it was indifference. I can be very patient explaining a vision, very supportive of someone apprehensive. But trying to deal with indifference was like pushing a rope. Until someone brilliant told me bluntly: “It’s not because you said it that they will do it!”

We human beings are interesting creatures. We all know that we should quit smoking, stop drinking, eat healthier or exercise more. We know that. It’s stored in our brain with all the facts and data that supports it. Yet, we don’t change until the Doc says “If you continue, you’re dead in two years”! It takes more than knowing about a situation to trigger our action. So yelling at the carnivores that they should quit eating meat just adds another thought in their brain, just beside “Stop eating junk food”. When managers explain why staff should change and how much better everything will be, all of this info goes right into people’s brains, alongside “Quit Smoking” and “Exercise More”. So do people resist change? Well sometimes yes, when our proposal triggers fear for example. But I’d say most people are indifferent most of the time: our issue isn’t theirs.

I started to chat with the woman leading the demonstration. This, I must admit, was totally to stop her from screaming in that megaphone which was now 1 meter from my ears! “What are you trying to achieve?” I asked, thinking that a question would be less threatening. “I want people to stop eating meat! We’ve tried everything, but it doesn’t work so we’re down to trying this”. Humm… “Everything? Really? And how is this working for you so far?”

Thinking of our employees as resisting puts the blame on them. We’ve tried everything but, hey! They’re resisting! Not our fault! However, reframing our view to see our employees as unengaged puts the situation, and the responsibility, in our hands. As David Rock, well known researcher in Neuro Leadership, states: Engagement is something the employee has to offer, it cannot be made part of the conditions of employment.

So what does it take? Maybe a feast?

My wife convinced me to try veganism by cooking me the tastiest food! My mother-in-law, also a vegan Masterchef, puts it this way: “to most of you carnivores, a meal is a plate of meat and potatoes. When you’re told “Eat Vegan”, we picture the same plate, but without the meat” (or worse, with alfalfa instead of the meat!) Yet, I assure you that eating at her table is a real feast! I told our vegan activist “Look, there is an empty commercial space right beside Schwartz. You have with you an army of people energetically committed to the cause! You guys should open a darn good Vegan restaurant right there, and you’d have a perpetual lineup of hungry people right in front of your restaurant that you could try to convince to try Vegan instead of waiting endlessly in the carnivore line”. She got interested in the idea.

I’m sure you’ve heard about change’s ubiquitous “Burning Platform”, that sense of urgency one must create for people to start changing. However, in real life, there are few real burning platforms. When we articulate events, statistics and context in a way to present it as a “burning platform”, our people can smell it and it adds another piece of data in their brain. Besides, the Burning Platform triggers fear in our brains, not commitment. So what we need is a Vegan feast: an alternative, a path to transition that appears feasible and doable to our people, one that triggers a positive gut, not mind, reaction. We need to engage people for them to start making change! Talking to them is not enough to trigger action.

There is another essential ingredient: leadership. Leadership is influence, influence requires relationships and trust. If we build and hone those relationships and build trust with our people, we are more likely to influence them when the time comes. That does not spare us from doing our homework on the Vegan feast-to present a clear and doable mouth-watering transition path. However, if the path does not appeal to some, our investment in trust and in the relationship will allow us to engage them through a hazy change path.

I know everything I’ve been saying here, I’ve been teaching it for years and yet, when I succeed at doing it 50% of the time, I consider that pretty good… I am very enthusiastic about my work, absorbed in my goals and may sometime consider the time spent in engaging others as slowing me down. That haste has ended a few times in me screaming on the street with a megaphone! What about you dear colleagues? Are your using the megaphone with your employees, or are you working on the Vegan feast? On my side, I made a commitment to myself: next time I’m near Schwartz, I’ll eat at the Vegan restaurant!


Francois Gagnon François Gagnon is president of Lead-Action Training.

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