Skip to content

To Overcome Resistance To Change, You Need A Strategy, Not A Slogan

2023 November 12

When we’re passionate about an idea, we want others to see it the same way we do, with all its beautiful complexity and nuance. We want to believe that if others can just understand it, they will embrace it. That’s why most change management practices focus on persuasion, explaining the need for change and creating a sense of urgency.

But consider recent research that finds that we can’t even agree on simple concepts such as what a penguin is and it becomes clear that for any given initiative, people are bound to see it differently. The simple truth is that change doesn’t fail on its own, it fails because people resist it. If we are to bring about genuine change, our first job is to overcome that resistance.

What we need to internalize is that humans form attachments to people, ideas and other things and, when those attachments are threatened, we act in ways that don’t reflect our best selves. Every change strategy has to begin with that. Clever gimmicks or snappy slogans won’t bring about true transformation. We have to build a strategy to overcome resistance from the start.

First, Follow The Energy

There’s something about human nature that, when we’re really excited about an idea, makes us want to go convince the skeptics. That’s almost always a bad idea. A much better strategy is to start with people who are enthusiastic about your change, who want it to succeed. They can help you strengthen it and spread it to others, who can spread it further still.

For example, in his efforts to reform the Pentagon, Colonel John Boyd began every initiative by briefing a group of collaborators he called the “Acolytes,” who would help hone and sharpen the ideas. He then moved on to congressional staffers, elected officials and the media. By the time general officers were aware of what he was doing, he had built up too much support to ignore.

In a similar vein, a massive effort to implement lean manufacturing methods at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals began with a single team at one factory, but grew to encompass 17,000 employees across 25 sites worldwide and cut manufacturing costs by 25%. The campaign that overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević started with just 5 kids in a coffee shop.

One advantage to starting small is that you can identify your apostles informally, even through casual conversations. In skills-based transformations, effective change leaders often start with workshops and see who seems enthusiastic or comes up after the session. Your apostles don’t need to have senior positions or special skills, they just have to be passionate.

“You have to go where the energy is,” John Gadsby, who built a movement for process improvement inside Procter & Gamble that has grown to encompass 60,000 employees, told me. “We’ll choose energy and excitement and enthusiasm over the right position, or the person at the right leadership level, or the person whose job it is supposed to be to do that.”

Identify Shared Values 

Humans naturally form tribes. In a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to out-group members. Similar results were found in a study involving five year-old children and even in infants. Evolutionary psychologists attribute this tendency to kin selection, which explains how groups favor those who share their attributes in the hopes that those attributes will be propagated.

So it’s natural that when we feel passionately about an idea, we want to focus on how it’s different, to create our own tribe. For example, the Agile Manifesto has inspired fierce devotion and helped build a vibrant community around Agile product development. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when evangelists try to attract others to the movement, it’s the Agile Manifesto that they want to emphasize.

Yet for those outside the Agile development community, its principles can seem strange and impractical. It emphasizes adaptability over planning which can appear to be chaotic for those who are used to a more traditional approach. If you want to bring in new people, it’s better to focus on shared values, such as the ability to produce better quality projects faster and cheaper.

One of the biggest challenges in driving transformation is that while differentiating values make people excited about an idea, it is shared values that help build genuine and widespread support. That doesn’t mean you abandon or water down your beliefs. It just means that you need to meet people where they are, not where you wish them to be.

Design A Dilemma Action

Unfortunately, building a shared purpose isn’t always possible. Whenever we set out to make a significant impact you are bound to get pushback, not for any rational logic, necessarily but because, for whatever reason, but because for whatever reason, it offends some people’s dignity, their identity, their sense of self. A simple truth is that we all form irrational attachments and when those are threatened, we tend to act out in ways that don’t reflect our best selves.

When that happens—and it always does eventually—we can get sucked into a conflict, which will likely take us off course and discredit what we’re trying to achieve. Yet, here too, developing empathy skills to identify shared values can be extremely helpful. They can help us to design a dilemma action, which puts the opponents into an impossible position.

Dilemma actions have only recently become an active area of research, but have been used by practitioners for at least a century—famous examples include Gandhi’s Salt March, King’s Birmingham Campaign and Alice Paul’s Silent Sentinels. They are just as effective in an organizational context, using an opponent’s resistance against them.

One of the great things about dilemma actions is that you approach them exactly the same way you approach building allies—by identifying a shared purpose. Once you do that, you can design a constructive act rooted in that shared purpose that advances your agenda. Your opponent then has a choice: they can disrupt the act and violate the shared value or they can let it go forward and let change progress.

For example, I was once leading a transformation project that was being impeded by a sales director hogging accounts. Although it was agreed that she would distribute her clients, she never got around to it, so I set up a meeting with a key account and one of our salespeople. When she tried to disrupt the meeting, she violated the shared value we had established, was dismissed from her position and everything fell into place after that.

Planning To Survive Victory 

Many change leaders assume that once they win an initial victory that everything will get easier after that. They work for months—and sometimes years—to get a project off the ground. Yet just when they think they’re turning the corner, when they’ve won executive sponsorship, signed up key partners and procured enough financing to have a realistic budget, all the sudden things seem to get mired down.

That’s no accident. Just because you’ve won a few early battles doesn’t mean opposition to your idea melts away. On the contrary, faced with the fact that change may actually succeed, those who oppose it have probably just begun to redouble their efforts to undermine it. These efforts are often not overt, but they are there and can easily derail an initiative.

As Saul Alinsky once put it, every revolution inspires its own counterrevolution. That’s why every change effort must plan from the beginning to survive victory. You need to anticipate resistance, think about where you’re vulnerable and how you’ll mitigate those attacks by leveraging shared values.

The truth is that change is always a journey, never a particular destination, which is why lasting change is always built on the common ground of shared values. The answer doesn’t lie in any specific strategy or initiative, but in how people are able to internalize the need for change and transfer ideas through social bonds. A leader’s role is not necessarily to plan and direct action, but to inspire and empower belief.



Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an 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 and on LinkedIn.

Like this article? Sign up to receive weekly insights from Greg!

Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS