I launched the Right Words to Say column and video series as a way to help people struggling with real issues on their teams. This week I received a great question from Karen who’s looking for help with what to say to a colleague paralyzed by organizational change. What do you say when a teammate can’t move forward and is nostalgic about the past and hostile about the future?  I figure we can all use this one, so I’m sharing my answer with you.

The biggest mistake we make in this situation is to respond to hostility with hostility. Your teammate is being overly-emotional about change and that’s even more reason for you to dial down the emotion in your reaction to them. Start with the right mindset, then ask some great questions to figure out what’s going on, and then help your teammate reframe the situation.  If necessary, give them some clear feedback and if all else fails, stay clear.  Here are the words…

As with most delicate situations on teams, your default reaction should be curiosity.

Be curious, not judgmental

Negative reactions to change tend to come from fear and discomfort. Remember that. Try to identify the source of those emotions.

“I have noticed that when the boss starts talking about our new roles, you provide examples of why they won’t work.  How do you see this playing out?”

“What are some of the scenarios that you are thinking about when we talk about the integration of our new acquisition?”

This is a good time to review my feature on how to listen effectively, because the gold in the answers to these questions will lie below the surface and you need to know how to extract it. Your teammate is not making a rational argument against the change, he’s experiencing an emotional reaction that he’s trying to justify with rational-sounding points.

Loss of control

If your teammate gives you clues that his concern is a loss of control, help him refocus on what he can control.

“From your perspective, this feels like a loss of control, what are the things that you can be in control of in the new world? Are there minor changes you could recommend that would improve the structure?”

Loss of competence

If the underlying issue is your teammate’s fear that he will no longer be good at his job, help him think through his options.

“What do you think it will take to be successful in this new world? What past experiences can you draw on? What are some of your options for building your skills and experience in this area?”

Loss of confidence

If your teammate’s concerns are less about real loss of control or competence and more about the queasy feeling of low confidence, draw on past experience to reassure them.

“This feels like a huge change right now. We’ve had other significant changes in the past that you maneuvered through. What helped you navigate the change then?”

When to switch to feedback

If you have been empathetic and tried to understand their concerns and it hasn’t created any change, you might need to help your teammate with some more direct feedback.

“When the boss is talking about the implementation of the new structure and you make comments about why it won’t work without offering solutions, you start to be seen as a naysayer and your valid points carry less weight. How could you present a more balanced view so your concerns are heard?”

Simply changing your own mindset and thinking about your teammate less as a “whiner” and more as someone having difficulty, will make your teammate feel more comfortable. If you ask great questions and listen for what’s at the heart of the problem, you will be able to help your teammate reframe the situation and to move forward. If those strategies don’t work, you owe it to your teammate to give him some direct but kind feedback about the impact of his behavior.

If you’ve done those things and the person’s nostalgic view of the past endures—disengage. Don’t get sucked in. Now it’s the role of the team leader to make the right decisions for the future of the team.

Those are the right words to say when your teammate is resistant to change. Use the contact form or the comments section below to send in your questions. Watch for the answers in an upcoming blog or video.

Further Reading

Dealing with a Change that’s Hard to Swallow

Exercise: Exposing Reactions to Change

Help! I Don’t Like my Teammate

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