Are they resisting? (1/2)

31 May 2018
author picture Article written by Valérie Spaey

Part 1 - Preventing and managing resistances at the collective level.

Ask any manager what is the hardest part about dealing with change, and chances are the response will be: managing resistances.

Change is usually associated with uncertainty, stress and more often than not, a crisis of confidence that must be addressed head-on. In a nutshell, resistance operates as a survival strategy in the face of turbulences shaking down existing structures. As a normal result of disruptive events, it is not something leaders can turn a blind eye to. But the problem is precisely that those who initiated the change - or already adjusted to the new reality - have fully integrated it and tend to minimize difficulties as a result. Worst still, communication is often conceived of as a tool to inform, not to ease anxieties or frustrations and establish trust. This is a real problem for organizations given that communication is one of the key factors for driving engagement and proactively managing resistances.

If you find yourself facing this daunting challenge, read on. The first of this two-part series focuses on resistance patterns and provides actionable solutions to prevent and manage them at the group/collective level. The second and forthcoming article will explore ways to deal with individual resistance.

Resistance: what did you expect?

Within any organization, behaviours are fairly predictable in terms of the proportion of the people expected to pioneer the change, follow along from an early stage or join later, and those who resolutely oppose the process of change. Typically, 10% of the people will act as drivers. Think of change as a train: they would be the locomotive. This tiny fraction of staff is usually followed by a major group accounting for 40% of the people, the so-called early majority. The remaining half presents a particular challenge. While only 10% of the people are laggards, quick to claim they “would never jump on that bandwagon”, the bulk of the total actually tends to adopt a wait-and-see attitude…standing on the platform, unsure whether or not to catch that train. Wooing this group of late-adopters away from naysayers is thus essential to success. By contrast, there is no point in embarking on a gruelling campaign to “conquer” strongest opponents at all costs. Though tempting, this strategy will leave you exhausted for very disappointing results.


Preventing collective resistance in 4 steps.

Explaining the “why” of change, giving it meaning and allowing space for the “minds and the hearts” to express themselves are the best ways to prevent and decrease resistance. The following 4 steps will help you to address the "Awareness" and "Desire" dimensions of the ADKAR model. Skipping one of them can have devastating effects as spreading rumours accentuate uncertainty and stress. It is also a sure way to take the undecided or the soft-opposed one step closer to the extreme end of the resistance spectrum.

Step 1 – Design the story for change with the audience in mind.

The number one rule to keep in mind is that the better the understanding of the purpose of the change and the risk not to do it, the stronger the engagement. So identify the key messages that may make them understand the meaning of the change, emphasizing the “why” and not the “what”. Getting the people to align around a robust message greatly helps minimize collective resistance. Use the following questions or prompts as a guide to craft a compelling story of the change:

  • Define the context and related challenges: How would you describe your current activity, its associated market and likely evolution? What are your clients’ expectations?
  • Valorize past successes: What successes allowed your team to thrive and get to where it is today?
  • Describe the envisioned future: If you were to jump into a successful future, say three years from now, what would be the situation be like?
  • Highlight current issues: Why are current working routines or strategies inadequate to face the future and cope with challenges ahead? Likewise, why is status quo not an option?
  • Specify the benefits of change: What are the benefits for the organization, the team and yourself?
  • Lay the groundwork for a solution: What actions might be taken to build the envisioned state?

Step 2 – Addressing “the mind”: Let people ask questions.  

It is of utmost importance to clarify the situation first. This is not the time to take up personal questions. Let the audience know that they will be allowed to proceed with them later on. As for clarification questions left unanswered, people should rest assured that those will be handled diligently.

Step 3Addressing “the heart”: Encourage the expression of doubts and fears and listen.

Seeking collective catharsis is part of the overall process. Ask participants to verbalize their fears and hopes. They should be duly registered as this represents a valuable source of information for managers in charge of managing resistances down the line. Beware that all you need to focus on is listening. Feeling the urge to answer is an easy trap to fall into. The whole point here is to relieve the pressure through free speech, not to fix things.

Step 4 – Complete the process with a proper thank you and discuss the experience!

If people have partaken in similar processes or workshops in the past, it a good opportunity to share the experience. If they haven’t, ask for feedback. Change management is much more than one-shot actions. It should ideally become an organizational capability in its own right and capitalizing on past experiences is a great way to solidify its foundations.

Managing resistances: what to do with naysayers.

Of course, prevention is better than cure. But expect some groups to resist upfront. Rather than seeking to prevent or limit resistances, the intention is to push people to be truly vocal. To put it simply, give them the floor.


In such cases, the above mentioned process will need to be strengthened and slightly tweaked in the following way. Make a deal with participants to listen before you take the back seat. Immediately proceed to collect concerns, fears, frustrations and reasons for discontent. Third, ask for more! Some people may naturally step forward and highlight positive aspects of the situation. Even though this speeds up the process completion, it is crucial to get to the bottom of the matter and leave no stone unturned. Only then can you shift the conversation and end on a positive note.

In situations of change, resistances are part of the game and the best way to anticipate them is to “pull them out”. The upcoming article will focus on individual resistances.

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