Leadership Solutions from Read Solutions Group: When Leaders Resist

Friday, February 12, 2010

When Leaders Resist

In December I attended a workshop on Creating a Lean Culture. The focus of the discussion was on what Toyota has done to establish a culture of continuous improvement in its operations. While Toyota has developed a unique culture (despite the recent recalls), it is difficult to translate the Toyota Way into other organizational contexts. This is particularly true for the companies that are implementing Lean or Six Sigma concepts in existing, reasonably successful companies or operating units. Yet the question among the workshop attendees was often not “What should we be doing?” but rather, “What do you do when a leader resists?”

It often appears and it’s certainly conventional wisdom that whether the change in lean, six sigma, a new IT system, or a benefits change, some leaders and managers will resist the change. When it’s the successful, seasoned mid-level leaders, it can be extraordinarily difficult to bring them around. This article speaks to a few strategies that can prove useful in breaking down the resistance and inviting these leaders to join the change. While the example is a lean implementation, I encourage you to rewrite this story with the change that is underway in your organization.

Meet Larry. Larry is a plant manager. He’s been at this facility for 15 years, the last 7 as plant manager. He’s successfully managed or led the plant through capital projects, labor negotiations, environmental incidents, seasons of sold-out production and full line shutdowns. The plant safety scores are continuously improving and he regularly meets his cost reduction targets. Larry is well-respected at his plant, within in his community, by his peers and by the business head. Having outlived most of the corporate programs, he’s expecting to do it again with this change.

Larry’s a smart guy. He’s joined the tours to “best practice” facilities. He’s read the articles. He’s listened to the successes, challenges and failures of his colleagues who’ve moved forward with the changes. He doesn’t argue that it won’t work. He doesn’t block the consultants from running their workshops. He even gives one of his people, perhaps not one of his stars, the role of project lead, and dutifully reports at the quarterly reviews the work that is going on at the plant. Yet everyone knows that that little is actually happening.

Larry may be someone you know, or you may need to influence people like Larry. I invite you to read the rest of this article to identify some strategies for working with Larry. If none of its working for you, or you’ve lost patience, give me a call and we can talk about how I can I support you in developing new strategies, or I can work directly with Larry in moving through the change.

As mentioned before, Larry is smart guy and he’s seen and heard all of the evidence. Nonetheless, as organizations frequently made up of engineers and accountants, we fall back on trying to move him with either 1) evidence or 2) management “persuasion”. Consider how ineffective solid evidence is in changing many behaviors, such as, flossing, exercise, smoking, speeding, etc. While evidence of the value of a change is critically important, the most compelling evidence to a person if what they experience. Larry’s evidence is that he’s been successful, is successful, and believes that he knows how to continue to be successful. Furthermore, Larry knows that his past success has involved avoiding these “passing fads”.

Before considering useful strategies, we want to begin with recasting the resistance. In 1999, Dent and Goldberg in “Challenging A Resistance to Change” argue that accepting the conventional wisdom that people naturally resist change leads to counter-productive behaviors. Instead of looking at ways to overcome resistance (read more in my last newsletter) , we’ll explore ways to influence behavior.
  1. It’s too big, too much or unclear. Look to the success stories to identify for the “vital behaviors” – the smallest set of behaviors that will have the greatest impact. These are not thoughts, values, or qualities, but the very few “must do’s” that done consistently and persistently will lead to change. For more on Vital Behaviors see Influencer by Patterson, Grenny, et al.
  2. People resist loss, not change. In the SCARF model suggested by David Rock (Your Brain at Work), apparent resistant may come from feared changes in Status, Control, Autonomy, Relatedness, or Fairness. Explore and acknowledge what people may lose. Once the fears are identified, opportunities arise to address the fear, alter the change to minimize the impact, or allow the person to set aside the fear and proceed.
  3. Unclear alignment with personal goals. Support people in uncovering their goals and how the change fits in with them. Perhaps Larry is motivated by seeing teams get energized – show how your change will make that happen. Maybe Larry wants to keep things quiet until retirement, so taking a risk and working hard isn’t motivating; can he see this as leaving a legacy? Spend time on the values, goal and purpose looking for the places of alignment.
  4. “You’re not listening.” Ford and Ford in Harvard Business Review April 2009 remind us to look at resistance as feedback. Focus on the purpose of the change and invite discussion, engagement, involvement and even refusal as you refine the change effort.
  5. Plan for a marathon, not a sprint. New behaviors are often not easy and take time to become comfortable. People will experience challenges from others and from existing systems, and so need ongoing support. Unexpected roadblocks will arise. Build support teams, provide regular communications, celebrate what’s working, and add fun into the change.
It often seems like most people are not wired for change; yet the reality is that we are marvelously equipped to accept, adapt to and adopt change. It is a reality of all elements of our lives – in our homes, in our family life, in our education, in our careers, in our economics, in our jobs. We may not always respond rationally to a change, but then doesn’t that in itself, give us clues on what strategies may begin to influence behavior.

For help working with leaders who are (apparently) resisting change, send me an email at Sherry@ReadSolutionsGroup.com or leave a comment on the posting.

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