The Power of Resistance

In the last months we have witnessed a textbook case of how emotions impact a change process as Congress and the nation have debated health care reform.

Even the most rational thinkers cannot doubt the power of the emotional domain to either support or kill a change process after witnessing the rhetoric and positioning employed by both sides as this bill came to a head. There is a lot for business leaders to learn from this most public instance of major change.

By its very nature, change is about friction and disruption. The moment any change is suggested, emotional energy begins to gather in resistance. And the bigger, more radical the change, the more emotional upset and foment will come forward to resist it. The closer the change gets to becoming reality, the more formidable and sometimes desperate the resistance becomes.

Sadly, the usual response from change leaders is to wait until that upset shows itself, and then organize an equally emotional campaign of support. The result is a pattern of debate that becomes a self-sustaining loop of emotion and diatribe.

In our current health care debate, this may have been unavoidable, since the issues on both sides are so heavily grounded in ideology. But in most organizations the change leaders’ tool kit can make use of the emotional domain to both improve and sustain a change initiative. Here are a few strategies for getting your next new idea through the gauntlet of resistance.

Engage all constituents early in the vision process. I worked with a national brokerage firm trying to cut operating costs while retaining its customer-centered focus. The idea of rerouting incoming calls from the branch offices to a regional call center was part of a widely circulated plan for more than 11 months. It was only when the SVP announced that the process change would be implemented in the coming 30 days that a revolt among the brokers took shape. In subsequent rollouts, front-line brokers were included in the design of changes, integrating components that would allay the broker’s concerns and becoming spokespeople for their colleagues.

Use internal communications as a strategic weapon. I encourage change leaders to think about the internal change process just as they do new product development and rollout. No company would simply release a press announcement for a new product and expect that sales would soar. Public relations, brand identity, strategic communications and customer education begin early and ramp up so that surprises are minimized and issues of concern can surface early. By including all constituents early, a change leader can begin to understand the resistance a needed change is likely to evoke and start to reach out effectively before planning is mature.

Do not think of those who resist change as the enemy. The moment that polarization of the change becomes personal, you run the risk of the same mean-spirited and acrimonious discussion that made the health care debates so painful. Think of those who disagree as challengers whose concerns can help you make the planned change more effective. Start with the realization that behind any complaint is something that someone feels passionately about.  Although a team may have envisioned and planned the change, it is the friction of resistance that will make changes that can create a larger coalition for support. And that same resistance can kill initiatives that are poorly conceived or overly radical. That means the leader and the change sponsor must let go of their own perception of the idea as perfect.

Recognize that politics matter. Corporate change is different from politics. Someone is in charge and empowered to make decisions. That changes the power balance from the beginning. But in any organization there are issues that have more to do with personal gain, polarized points of view, organizational silos and special interest than with the planned change. To ignore them is to invite failure.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, March 29, 2010.