My favorite source of topics for posts are the questions I get at the end of my speeches. Last week, I was giving the opening keynote in a room full of mayors and local government representatives. The speech was called, “Change Has Changed.” It’s about the challenges of leading teams through perpetual change…the kind that doesn’t let up and doesn’t provide an opportunity to rest or regroup. At the end, one of the audience members asked how long he should accommodate those who refuse to change. In a follow-up, he asked how he can tell if change is starting to take hold. Great questions; let’s dive in.

How long should you accommodate the change resistors?

This would be an easy question to evade or to answer with a wishy-washy “it depends.” It is, after all, an uncomfortable topic talking about terminating people’s employment. That said, the ability of everyone else on the team to get on with things and make their livings in a decent work environment is important too. So, my answer is that you should terminate the resistors quickly.

First, be extremely clear what new behaviors you’re looking for. Be just as explicit about what constitutes inappropriate or unacceptable behavior. Second, make room for people to give you input on how they could make the changes more palatable. Be flexible and allow the team to make incremental changes in the right direction. Third, provide (and document) feedback to people who are contravening the new expectations. Go through at least three rounds and increase the severity of the consequences each time. The time span over which you should spread this feedback depends on your circumstances, but I would invest about two months actively trying to change things for the better. Finally, if things are not getting any better terminate one or two people who are fueling the resistance and who are unwilling to change their behavior after repeated feedback.

These active resistors probably aren’t the only ones making it difficult to change but while they are in the organization, it’s too hard to assess the strength of others’ resistance. It’s possible that once the noisy dissenters are gone, everyone else will be more open to the new ways of operating. Invest even more time in trying to bring those folks along. It will take at least a month before they come to terms with the instigators leaving. Then it will take time for them to internalize the new expectations and make a call about whether they want to change. If you can afford to wait, give it six months and then reassess.

How do I know it’s taking hold?

That begs the question, “when I reassess, what should I be looking for?” It might surprise you that the first sign you’re having a positive impact could be more resistance. Early resistance to change is often covert; spread through whispers that you catch as you walk into rooms. It’s a good sign if that resistance starts to come out into the open. If you start hearing dissent to your face, that’s progress.

If you stay calm and react to overt resistance with empathy and a good dose of logic, that will encourage even more direct engagement.  The next positive sign to look for is the shift from assertions to questions. The best thing at this stage is that people stop actively resisting the change and start struggling with it. You can see the struggle when people vacillate between being emotional and being rational, when then switch from rebuffing to considering, when they try to figure out what it would look like if they were to try the new way. When you see the struggle, you’re making progress.

Once those who initially resisted start to engage, you have a shot at turning things around. With the instigators gone, the second-tier resistors can struggle and wrestle and oscillate. If you consistently notice and reward the small steps in the right direction, if you provide coaching and training and advice and support to help them succeed in the change, then you have a good chance of getting them over the hump and contributing to the success of the team.

When you introduce an unpopular change, be clear about what you’re asking for and why. When you sense resistance, provide feedback and coaching with escalating consequences. After a couple of months of effort, remove the one or two people who are most actively whipping up resistance. Then double down on the people who are still resistant. Be patient and willing to acknowledge the earliest signs that people are willing to consider changing how they behave.

Further Reading

Exercise: Exposing Reactions to Change

What to Say to Someone Resisting Change

Managing Constant Change

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