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3 Strategies To Overcome Resistance To Change

2022 October 16
by Greg Satell

Max Planck’s work in physics changed the way we were able to see the universe. Still, even he complained that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

For most transformational efforts we need to pursue, we simply don’t have that kind of time. To drive significant change we have to overcome staunch resistance. Unfortunately, most change management strategies assume that opposition can be overcome through communication efforts that are designed to persuade.

This assumes that resistance always has a rational basis and clearly that’s not true. We all develop emotional attachments to ideas. When we feel those are threatened, it offends our dignity, identity and sense of self. If we are going to overcome our most fervent opponents we don’t need a better argument, we need a strategy. Here are three approaches that work:

Strategy 1: Designate An Internal Red Team

Resistance is never monolithic. While some people have irrational attachments based on their sense of identity and dignity, others are merely skeptical. One key difference between these two groups is that the irrational resistors rarely voice their opposition, but try to quietly sabotage change. The rational skeptics, on the other hand, are much more eager to engage.

While these are different groups, they often interact with each other behind the scenes. In many cases, it is the active, irrational opposition that is fueling the skeptics’ doubts. One useful strategy for dealing with this dynamic is to co-opt the opposition by setting up an internal red team to channel skepticism in a constructive way.

Red-teaming is a process in which an adversarial team is set up to poke holes in an operational or strategic plan. For example, red teams are used in airports and computer systems to see if they can find weaknesses in security. The military uses red teams to test battle plans. Perhaps most famously, a red team was used to help determine whether the conclusions that led to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout were valid or if there was some other explanation.

Recruiting skeptics to be an internal red team provides two benefits. First, they can alert you to actual problems with your ideas, which you can then fix. Second, they not only voice their own objections, but also bring those of the irrational opposition out into the open (remember, irrational resisters rarely speak out.)

What’s key here is to make the distinction between rational skeptics and the irrational saboteurs. Engage with skeptics, leave the saboteurs to themselves.

Strategy 2: Don’t Engage And Quietly Gain Traction

Have you ever had this happen?: You’re in a meeting where things are moving slowly towards a consensus. Issues are discussed, objections raised and solutions devised. Toward the end of the meeting, just as things are shifting gears to next steps, somebody who had hardly said a word the whole time all of a sudden throws a hissy fit in the middle of the conference room and completely discredits themself.

There’s a reason why this happens. Remember saboteurs are not acting rationally. They have emotional attachments that they often can’t articulate, which is why they rarely give voice to their objections, but rather look for more discreet opportunities to derail the process. When they see things moving forward, they panic.

This doesn’t happen just in conference rooms. Those who are trying to sabotage change prefer to lurk in the background and hope they can quietly derail it. But when they see genuine progress being made, they will likely lash out, overreach and inadvertently further your cause.

This behavior is incredibly consistent. In fact, whenever I’m speaking to a group of transformation and change professionals and I describe this phenomenon to them, I always get people coming up to me afterwards. “I didn’t know that was a normal thing, I thought it was just something crazy that happened in our case!”

It’s important to resist the urge to respond to every attack. You don’t need to waste precious time and energy engaging with those who want to derail your initiative, which is more likely to frustrate and exhaust you than anything else. It’s much better to focus on empowering those who support change. Non-engagement can be a viable way to deal with opposition.

Strategy 3: Design A Dilemma Action

I once had a six-month assignment to restructure the sales and marketing operations of a troubled media company and the Sales Director was a real stumbling block. She never overtly objected, but would rather nod her head and then quietly sabotage progress. For example, she promised to hand over the clients she worked directly with to her staff, but never seemed to get around to it.

It was obvious that she intended to slow-walk everything until the six months were over and then return everything back to the way it was. As a longtime senior employee, she had considerable political capital within the organization and, because she was never directly insubordinate, creating a direct confrontation with her would be risky and unwise.

So rather than create a conflict, I designed a dilemma. I arranged with the CEO of a media buying agency for one of the salespeople to meet with a senior buyer and take over the account. The Sales Director had two choices. She could either let the meeting go ahead and lose her grip on the department or try to derail the meeting. She chose the latter and was fired for cause. Once she was gone, her mismanagement became obvious and sales shot up.

Dilemma actions have been around for at least a century. One early example was Alice Paul’s Silent Sentinels who picketed the Wilson White House with his own quotes in 1917. More recently, the tactic has been the subject of increasing academic interest. What’s becoming clear is that these actions share clear design principles that can be replicated in almost any context.

Key to the success of a dilemma action is that it is seen as a constructive act rooted in a shared value. In the case of the Sales Director, she had agreed to give up her accounts and setting up the meeting was aligned with that agreement. That’s what created the dilemma. She had to choose between violating the shared value or giving up her resistance.

How Change Really Happens

One of the biggest misconceptions about change is that it is an exercise in persuasion. Yet anyone who has ever been married or had kids knows how hard it can be to convince even a single person of something they don’t want to be convinced about. Seeking to persuade hundreds or thousands to change what they think or how they act is a tall order indeed.

The truth is that radical, transformational change is achieved when not when those who oppose it are convinced, but when they discredit themselves. It was the brutality of Bull Connor’s tactics in Birmingham that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It was Russia’s poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 that set Ukraine on a different path. The passage of Proposition 8 in California created such controversy that it actually furthered the cause of same-sex marriage.

We find the same dynamic in our work with organizational transformations. Whenever you set out to make a significant impact, there will always be people who will hate the idea and seek to undermine it in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. Once you are able to internalize that you are ready to move forward.

Through sound strategies, you can learn to leverage opposition to further your change initiative. You can co-opt those who are rationally skeptical to find flaws in your idea that can be fixed. For those who are adamantly and irrationally opposed to an initiative, there are proven strategies that help lead them to discredit themselves.

The status quo always has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully. The difference between successful revolutionaries and mere dreamers is that those who succeed anticipate resistance and build a plan to overcome it.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Klim Musalimov on Unsplash


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