You have communicated the change at every opportunity—and heads were nodding at every meeting. You start the implementation, and then suddenly progress stalls. Deadlines are not met. The excitement for the change starts to wane. “What did I do wrong?” you ask yourself. You read the right books, you followed all of the steps; this should be working!
In order to implement change, the forces for change must be greater than the resistance to it. Resistance to change takes many forms, but we at Fathom Consulting see our clients struggle over and over again when people simply will not adopt the new processes or tools. “Why am I doing all this new work?” they might ask. Or, they might dismiss all the reasons the change is needed because they question your credibility.
These people are the hold-outs. They see “your” changes as a waste of “their” time.
As a leader, you might think you can pull rank and just “make” them do it. But even when these individuals are in your chain of command (which is not a given), competing organizational priorities, their strong relationships with internal or external customers, and their specialized knowledge could mean your ability to exert formal authority over the hold-outs is not guaranteed. What do you do? How do you bring these people along? Or, even better, how do you head off this problem in the first place?
We at Fathom Consulting have found that clients that follow three basic steps are most likely to succeed:
- Identify the hold-outs—early!
- Identify tactics
Identify the hold-outs—early!
Our successful clients identify hold-outs early on, and can almost always name them when asked. As consultants, we usually have our own ideas about holdouts within the early days of our engagement. Your own intuition is likely the best guide to identify these people, but we have noticed they often:
- Perceive they have seen change efforts fail before
- Possess important expertise
- Were part of a group that your business acquired or your department took over
- Do not share information well
- Fear that they may lose control and authority
Once you have identified the group of potential hold-outs, identify your approach to working with them to meet project goals. What does persuading your potential hold-outs entail? There are numerous books on the subject, but I often find myself relying on techniques that—surprisingly—I learned in acting school.
Two concepts I learned that I still apply are objectives and actions.
- Objectives. Characters in plays, like organizational leaders, have objectives. Romeo’s objective is to marry Juliet. Your objective is to implement a new organization, set of tools, or processes.
- Actions. Actions are the series of tactics a character uses to reach their objective. Actions, which are expressed as verbs, give actors something to do with their lines beyond just saying them. In the Harry Potter movies, the great British actor Ralph Fiennes plays Lord Voldemort, the evil lord bent on conquering the wizarding world. Voldemort is so compelling because Fiennes employs so many interesting tactics in pursuit of his goal. In the hands of a lesser actor, Voldemort’s actions would simply be: “scare (people)”; “scare (people)”; “scare (people)”; “attack (Harry Potter).” Instead, Fiennes uses a variety of actions. He praises, soothes, welcomes, commands, wonders, calculates, tempts, crushes, treasures, menaces, honors, and so on. And then he attacks Harry Potter!
As you approach your potential hold-outs, take a page from Ralph Fiennes’s book. No, this does not mean acting like Lord Voldemort to force people to adapt to change (although that may be tempting!). But it does mean expanding your array of actions. Too often change leaders try just a few tactics, like “set expectations” or “push.” But what happens when these two obvious steps do not work? Use some new actions! Here is just a short list of actions you can use with your hold-outs:
- Listen: What are their concerns, fears, and frustrations?
- Explain: Do they understand the business reasons for the change, and how it benefits them?
- Empathize: Do they just need an opportunity to be heard?
- Collaborate: If they help develop the solution, will they align with the project’s goals?
- Problem-solve: Their resistance may be rooted in having to do new and additional work. Are there ways to reduce their workload or solve other problems they might have?
- Amuse: Can you build a better relationship with the hold-outs through humor, lessening resistance?
- Challenge: If someone is holding out, but others are adapting to the change, how does your hold-out explain that? What is their core issue?
- Hand hold: Check in frequently. Is their resistance softening? If not, repeat the above steps!
Notice that the verb escalate is not on the list, although that is often the first thing we think of. “If Joe isn’t going to get on board, I am going to go to his boss to make him!” Escalation is necessary at times, but try to work out differences as best you can without escalating. When you are successful at working through resistance without escalation, you will build stronger relationships—not weaken the ones you have.
The final step is to persevere. The importance of perseverance and follow-through cannot be overstated. If you stop trying, you will likely move backward—not forward. Based on years of experience at Fathom Consulting, we are confident you will need to spend more time with potential hold outs than you expect. You cannot count on the normal chain of command to communicate change to prevent hold-outs. Our experience is that companies underestimate this work and may not stick with it. Your change is likely to be less successful if you fall into this trap.
Change is hard, and leading change is harder. But change is inevitable. Nearly every client with whom we partner is undertaking transformational work driven by the need to expand markets, respond to new regulations, leverage new technology, adjust to new demographics, or address new competitive threats. Executing a well-designed change management plan is critical to achieve these transformations, but the plan has to take into account potential hold-outs. Bringing these people along is going to take more than a direction, more than a meeting, more than training. It is going to take action.