Do you wonder why people resist change and what you can do about it?

Once every few weeks I go to one of my favorite restaurants with a friend to philosophize about life and work (and to eat and drink of course). He is currently in the middle of (yet) another ‘agile transformation.’

Last time he told me how his coworkers get stuck in translating the current way of working to the new one. From time to time his coworkers fall back to the “old ways” or get frustrated and give up the new way completely. All of this happens while consultants are present to coach his co-workers to make the transition. There is a gap between what the coaches teach and the day to day reality of his coworkers. He asked me if I had any ideas what is causing this gap and how to bridge it.

The story usually goes like this. The company leadership realizes that they want to hop onto the agile train. They may not have a clue about agile, but based on the sounds coming from its marketing engine, they decide it’s time for an agile transformation.

Realizing that they don’t have a clue how to do this, they reach out to consultancy agencies to get support. Next, there is an announcement and a meet-and-greet with the consultancy firm — first leadership followed by the employees.

It is not uncommon for employees to think that this is yet another one of those changes that are going to make “everything better.” They already have resistance before they started.

What happens next depends on what leaders do to guide the change. It is easy to generate more resistance that will not quickly go away. Many changes management initiatives fail because leaders do not take the existing culture and context into account.

It is hard to answer my friend’s question without a more in-depth view of what is going on in his company. I can share a few words on what I would be looking for to find out what is going on and what steps the leaders can take to make the gap smaller.

In the following sections, I will give you three change sabotaging leadership mantras, four reasons why people resist and five steps to lead a change.

Three change sabotaging leadership mantras

The Business-As-Usual Mantra

Expecting to live up to existing commitments, while changing the way you know how to get results is merely ludicrous. Driving change requires time. Learning is at your bottleneck when you change how you do things. You must reserve time for, and as a leader, you (most likely) have to renegotiate earlier commitments. When you advocate the business-as-usual mantra, while pushing a change initiative, you will get what you ask for: business as usual.

The Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy Mantra

An easy way to upset people is to pretend there is no reason to worry and there is nothing to be concerned about. Failing to acknowledge concerns and fears is a common pitfall. When you want to make people believe that their concerns and fears are ungrounded, you need to listen and empathize. Failing to listen, acknowledge and convince folks that you address the concerns reduces the buy-in from your coworkers. What do YOU do when you think that someone is not open to hearing what you have to say? What do YOU do when you feel someone is not taking you seriously? You stop listening.

So when your coworkers openly express their concerns, encourage them to say more, listen, ask questions, be curious, paraphrase, summarize, and reflect to see if you understand what is on their mind. Acknowledge their concerns and talk about how you think you can address the concerns. Ask what they need to take away the worries. Ask whether they recognize that your approach to tackling these concerns will help.

Do-As-I-Say, Don’t-Do-As-I-Do Mantra

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for leaders to expect everyone else to change ways, while not making any changes to what they do. A move like the one my friend was talking about, typically involves changes through all layers of an organization.

The behavior you see from your employees is a reflection of your leadership. If you don’t like what you have, first take a good look at current leadership directions and their impact. Maybe all you need change is the way you lead the organization, and you can save yourself a ton of money by not asking everyone else to change their way of working. Take ownership when you are the leader of the pack. “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders,” says Leif Babin, a Hell Week instructor for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) and author of the best-seller, “Extreme Ownership.”

Four reasons why people resist change

Reason 1 – Why is the change needed?

When you ask someone to change something, the first question that is likely to pop up in their mind is: “Why?” They may wonder: “What is wrong with the way we have already done things?” A company that wants to change direction or the way it does things typically doesn’t make such decisions overnight. The leaders have thought this through for some time and sometimes forget they are a few steps ahead of everyone else in the process of making the change. When this results in skipping to explain why the changes are needed, they run into resistance.

People need to understand why the changes requested are essential to creating a shared sense of urgency. Without it, nothing or little may happen. Spend time explaining how you got to the conclusion. Preferably, involve a subset of your team early in the process. When people are involved in clarifying the problem that needs to be solved and recognize it and had a chance to express their ideas about possible solutions, the chances of a proper buy-in significantly increase.

In my friend’s case, it may not be entirely clear to people why they need to change to an agile way of working.

Reason 2 – What are you asking?

When people understand why the changes requested are needed, they may not completely understand what that means for their work. Your coworkers may have many questions. What is the impact on me? Do I have the skills to handle the changes? Will I even like the new way of working? Is it better? Will I still have a job? Am I able to do this? What if I can’t?

Make it a team effort to discuss these questions. Find out where everyone is mentally. In shock? In denial? Frustrated? Disillusioned? Ready to experiment? In acceptance? I have found it to work well to use Kubler-Ross change curve. Print it on a large poster and ask people to put a sticky note on the spot where they think they are. Make sure people feel safe to discuss their feelings openly. Listen, acknowledge, empathize. Repeat this on a fixed cadence while going through the change. Over time you will see that people advance, stagnate and sometimes fall back on the curve.

In my friend’s case, I know that the work is extremely technical. It requires many years of specializing before you can do certain parts of the work. That also means that there are quite a few people that have been working in a certain way for many years in a row. It is not unlikely that they have trouble seeing how an agile approach fits what they need to achieve. The current way of working may be deeply ingrained in the company culture and consequently very hard to change.

Reason 3 – Who is asking?

It can make a big difference who is asking for changing the way of working. The chances of a satisfactory response increase when the relationship between the person who is asking and those requested to implement a change is healthy. A poor work relation will, of course, make things much more difficult.

However, it is not just the relationship that plays a role. Your coworkers may disregard someone as a sparring partner when they do not consider that person sufficiently knowledgeable in their profession. The requester may have trouble connecting adequately to the day-to-day reality. Such translation challenges are a common issue for consultants. A consultant is expected to be an expert in one or more areas, like being an expert in agile development frameworks, and simultaneously may not know anything about someone’s profession.

In my friend’s case, the work executed is highly technical. When consultants can explain well what needs to change in the current way of working, they may do that by defining the end state. They may not be able to translate the end state into an understandable path to get there and hence may have a problem getting folks on board.

Reason 4 – How are you asking?

You can apply different styles to ask people to change the way they do their work. Each form is not necessarily good or bad, but you may have a preference for one or the other. There is a big spectrum between asking nicely and a demanding style. The big question is whether the style fits the urgency. It is a matter of effectiveness on the short-term and long-term.

A mother immediately pulling her child back on the pavement when it is trying to cross a dangerous road is a more appropriate style than when she is asking nicely. Depending on the urgency, the demanding style may save the child’s life. The same demanding form may be less effective when she is demanding her child to clean up her bedroom. A messy room isn’t life-threatening. On the longer run, a more collaborative style is more effective.

Leading effective changes in your company also demand different styles. When you have no time to spare, your technique needs to be different than when the urgency is not that high. A more collaborative style best serves changes that take a longer time to execute. Proper buy-in will help you in the long run. However, when you need to save the company from bankruptcy, you may not be able to afford to work on the proper buy-in. It would be best if you had immediate changes and hence a more demanding style may be more appropriate.

However, when you apply a particular style, it will have an impact on the short and the long run. The method that may save your company today may cause issues later in implementing further changes in the future.

In my friend’s case, I have no clue how folks are asked to make the changes, so I’ll stay away from making any statements about it.

What can you do to increase your chances of successful change?

First of all, you may need to change how you think about the resistance. Resistance is a sign that people care. It does not have to be a bad thing. I tend to be more concerned when people don’t resist change at all. That means they don’t care at all what happens.

Step 1 – Have a clear vision

Make sure you have a clear vision and explain why the change is needed. Failing to disclose why the change is necessary and why it will make matters better will confuse people.

Step 2 – Acquire the right skills

Change is much easier when people trust they have the skills to deal with the change. Figure out what skills you need to develop when you find yourself or your coworkers worried about the change. Make sure people get the right training, organize workshops, facilitate books and study materials, provide them a mentor or a coach where needed.

Step 3 – Bring the right incentives in place

There must be a reason to change, and although you and your coworkers may agree why the change is vital for the company, you will naturally also wonder what is in it for you. As a leader, you need to facilitate people with the right incentives. Incentives do not always have to be monetary. Your coworkers are best at designing their incentives. Let them figure out what they want. They may come up with straightforward and cheap options. Like better coffee for everyone, or a team lunch, or a book club, a small party. Encourage creativity.

Step 4 – Ensure the right resources

It can be super frustrating when you are ready to make the changes requested, but you don’t have the right resources to do so. Bring the necessary things in place. Do people need new or other materials? Get them. Do they need a different room setup? Arrange it. Do they need software licenses? Get them. Do they need training? Arrange it.

Step 5 – Have a clear plan

Not having a plan may result in a death march and burnouts. Our earlier business-as-usual mantra is an example of how to set yourself up for failure. Apart from creating the right space and time for people to learn, you will also need to give them a clear view on how you intend to go from A to B. That requires that people understand where you are today, where you want to go (the vision) and how you expect to get there (the plan).

Final thoughts

The previous sections outline the elements that I would analyze. Is it clear to people why the requested change is essential? Do they understand how to make the switch? Do they have the resources to do so? Does their leadership walk the talk? Am I dealing with a typical example of the do-as-I-say-but-don’t-do-as-I-do leadership style? In any case, I would like to have a closer look through all layers of the organization and see if there are negative forces at play that may be in the way of a successful change. I do not expect that I have answered my friend’s question, but I hope this blog post gives you some handles to take a closer look at the next change you need to drive.


Three change sabotaging leadership mantras

  1. The Business-As-Usual Mantra
  2. Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy Mantra
  3. Do-As-I-Say, Don’t-Do-As-I-Do Mantra

Four reasons why people resistant change

  1. Why is the change needed?
  2. What are you asking?
  3. Who is asking?
  4. How are you asking?

Five steps to drive change

  1. Have a clear vision
  2. Acquire the right skills
  3. Bring the right incentives in place
  4. Ensure the right resources
  5. Have a clear plan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.