Seven tips for managing resistance in Covid-19.

23 November 2020

You need the same "tools" , but you must switch formats and double down on your efforts.

author picture Article written by Morten Kamp Andersen

Resistance is a natural reaction to change. It happens when people pause to understand and evaluate what this means for them. And there are always good reasons why people resist. Often it is due to poor leadership or poor change management. We can influence both.  

Resistance takes new forms in Covid-19 and can be more difficult to identify and manage. You need the same "tools"[1], but you must switch formats and double down on your efforts. A hybrid workplace and a new focus on safety call for adjustments to the way we deal with resistance. But as always, the more proactive and empathetic the approach, the easier it will be to avoid the further development of resistance.

Three new resistance challenges

Covid-19 is too big a change to handle. People resist for a good reason. And there is no shortage of reasons in an anxiety-inducing context such as Covid-19. Safety concerns can be overwhelming. Job security might feel like as it is hanging from a thread. Changes are piling up with the introduction of new technologies, remote work, and the pressing need to adopt new behaviours when on site. To further complicate matters, the crisis makes it tempting for leaders to adopt an autocratic approach to cover the emergency. We have all the conditions in place for a perfect storm, if all these changes are not managed well.   

Resistance is harder to identify. The office made resistance relatively easy to spot in the past. This has now morphed into a hybrid setup. The shrinking of direct social interactions allows resistance to slip under the radar. It is a lot harder to pick up on non-verbal cues. Some people also tend to be a lot less vocal in a context of crisis. All in all, spotting resistance can now be a bit of a guessing game.

Resistance is harder to manage. The workload that comes with dealing with the crisis may lead to resistance issues being driven to the background. This is an error with far-reaching consequences. Sure, it takes more communication efforts. And managers have certainly a lot on their plate those days. CM experts and HR responsible should, therefore, be the frontline of defence against the dilution of what remains a critical part of dealing with change.

Three levels of resistance: I don't get it, don't like it, don't like you

You cannot address resistance without first understanding its nature. Rick Maurer offers an incredibly valuable framework to start digging deeper.

Cognitive level: people don't understand the change. This the first level, and the one explanation we tend to hold on to. An intuitive reaction in the face of resistance is to repeat the message. How many times did you feel it was not enough? Probably a lot. Disregard emotional and relational levels, and you will stay stuck.

Emotional level: people don't like the change. An all-time classic. Change is usually a hard pill to swallow. Emotional reactions are part of the process. People need to find what's in there for them before they get on board. In short, they need a strong personal why. You have to create a desire before equipping people for the change.   

Relational level: people don't like you. Not that they have personal issues with you. Quite simply, your position or role might get in the way. Someone external to the organisation, i.e. a consultant, can be rejected because he or she is yet another person who is going to" tell them what to do".

How to anticipate and respond to Level 1 resistance

Before anything, hear them out. You need to anticipate the possible causes and levels of resistance. It will help create a user-oriented solution and get people involved from the get-go. A good way is to conduct a resistance focus group. Make use of online technologies like Zoom Rooms video conference solutions and any collaborative virtual tool to stimulate exchange within small groups. Listen without seeking to respond. Such a proactive approach to dealing with resistance will create a common understanding of the change.

Craft a compelling why. You want to make the business and strategic reasons behind the change crystal clear. The more transparent, the better, especially amid a crisis no one was prepared for. Beware, though, that people also need good personal reasons (WIIFM) and some sense of control to fully embrace the change, which leads us to the next point.

How to respond to Level 2 resistance

First, remove the barriers. This is pretty much a no-brainer. Something may stop people from moving forward with the change. It might be personal or logistical issues – in any case, you should know by now (see previous). Look for ways to solve the problem.

Show the benefits, create hope and incentivise: Success stories, testimonials, results of pilot projects, anything that demonstrates in vivid terms the benefits of change, must be part of your toolbox. But there is no point in showing how brighter the horizon will look like after the change if people do not feel part of it. Discuss what's in there for them. Consider incentivising the people who hold a position critical to the change, i.e. senior leaders or managers, with financial compensation or promotion.

Insist on the "what", not so much on the "how". Don't shovel a step-by-step to-do-list down people's throats. Give them some leeway to co-build the change. Trust them to achieve the vision. Mobilising collective action – as opposed to sticking to a top-down leadership – is more important than ever.

Give people choices, and state the consequences: Choice is the building brick of desire. Telling people what choices they have, along with what these options entail, is the best way to restore some sense of control.

What to do with Level 3 resistance

Some people are in the best position to deal with resistance. Co-opt them. You need to create trust and confidence. Managers are usually key players in resistance management because of their proximity to frontline employees. They are your best allies, but may already be stretched thin in Covid-19. So make sure you provide them with extra support.


[1] The last part builds on Prosci’s 10 tactics to manage resistance. See PROSCI (blog), Prosci’s top-10 action steps for managing resistance. Also see PROSCI (blog), Managing Resistance to Change, an Overview. 


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