How to Deal with Resistors to Change

In any organization, there are people who are opposed to any change in the status quo.  They have worked within a structure for years, and it provides a comfort zone for them. Perhaps they helped to create the structure. They are either passively or actively opposed to structural or policy change, feeling it may affect their job security or their authority. An individual like this will often guard his or her “turf” fiercely. It is important to identify and deal with them if you want to ensure the success of any new initiatives. There are generally two ways to work with individuals who may resist or derail your efforts: 

  1. Co-opt resistance: – You work to change their position/point of view
  2. Work around islands: – You work around them because changing their point of view is a waste of time.

Which method you use is dependent upon the type of individual you encounter.  Below are the typical personality types you'’re likely to meet and examples of some tactics to deal with them:

What’s In It For Me?

This type of individual has too much at stake in their current point of view and is threatened by any change. To co-opt them, you need to show that a) your proposals will improve their situation while lowering risk; and/or b) that the current conditions are untenable. For the latter, you'’ll need to demonstrate that they can support the change and thereby contribute some say to the future course, or it will happen by default. They need to know that stonewalling or attempting to derail the change will only meet with their defeat, and that it’s better to be part of the future than be left in the past.

The Wheeler-Dealer

The Wheeler-Dealer is primarily interested in extracting some type of quid pro quo for supporting your efforts rather than simply resisting them.  For example, the VP of HR (who reports to the CEO in this case) ingeniously claims that it would take months to recruit the extra accounting personnel to help upgrade your financial systems. But, he might contend, if you could release additional funding to upgrade HR'’s reporting systems, it would speed up the process.

If the quid pro quo is for something of mutual benefit, then you can consider complying and co-opt their resistance. On the other hand, if it’s pure ransom, then you may need to recruit the assistance of your CEO or Division leader and work around this mountainous island. You could say something like, "“I'’ve prepared the way for implementation but have encountered one roadblock. It’s one that will require your direct clout to remove, since it’s an issue that involves corporate priorities and funding set from your office."”

The Prima Donna

The Prima Donna is generally an individual who believes he or she is instrumental in helping the company to attain and maintain its standing.  Success has gone to the Prima Donna’s head. The most common culprits are the best-performing sales person, or the developer of the company’s IP or technology. They will invariably point out why your ideas are problematic. The Prima Donna might also use the argument that he or she has developed such priceless expertise over the course of many years, —far more years than you have vested in either the company or even your own career. This will cause others, including the CEO, to react with caution and/or spend inordinate amounts of time second-guessing you or developing defensive measures just in case your initiatives are faulty. The Prima Donna’s goal is to demonstrate intellectual prowess, and thereby protect or improve their position as key to the business. In spite of their successes, they are insecure.

The best defense with the Prima Donna is to discuss the problematic issues in a group setting (e.g., executive team meeting), where you can marshal the support of others. This is a “work around islands” technique.  Just be sure that you don'’t publicly humiliate the Prima Donna. If humiliated, they will unleash their fury (directly or behind your back) to protect and restore their wounded self-esteem.

Focus on probability and seriousness. Acknowledge that the Prima Donna’s concerns may have a legitimate basis, but demonstrate that those potential outcomes have a low probability of happening and are non-fatal. Draw a parallel to how the organization has effectively handled other similar risks in the past. Provide information about how you can address any concerns preventive and contingent actions –so that others involved in making a decision will realize that there is no need for any delay. Don'’t get in a fight; just allow the logic of your position to be embraced by others.

The Passive Aggressive

The passive aggressive person will use many of the same tactics of the Prima Donna. They will, however, cloak their criticism under the guise of, "“I'’m looking out for the best interests of the organization."” It’'s hard to pin anything on them because they don'’t come at you head on. The major difference (and challenge) with dealing with them is that, even after you think you’'ve won them over or worked around them and received the go-ahead for your endeavors, the passive aggressive will invariably “forget” to follow through with their end of the deal or provide some other plausible excuse. For example, “"We'’ve been buried and simply haven'’t had the time to follow through. –We'’ll hop right on it."” Meanwhile, another three weeks go by without forward movement on the project or program.

With the passive aggressive person, you'’ll need to assemble the facts and lay them on the table. If that doesn'’t work, you'’ll need to cut off any possible escape.  For example, you might say, “"You agreed to provide us with X by last Friday.  There appears to be a problem that we can'’t resolve.  Let’'s discuss this with your (or our) boss."”  They will never admit that they have passively resisted, but they will need to learn that they can'’t maneuver around you with the purpose of undermining you. They hate being cornered, but cornering them is a must.

The Worriers -- Most Everyone Else

The major source of resistance will generally come from people who are not actively opposed but are simply anxious. They worry about any change, even positive change. You can’'t ignore them because they will be easily swayed by anyone who taps into and exploits their anxiety; the types mentioned earlier.  Therefore, the best defense is a great offense: communication (co-opt their resistance). Most people are reassured simply by presenting them with a coherent game plan. They want to know that the person leading the charge has some idea where he is headed. By articulating a game plan, even knowing full well that you will be modifying it, you will instill confidence. You want people to know that you’'ve traveled on this road before. Begin by communicating to your fellow executives and direct reports the following:

  • Your general game plan for the next 3 – 6 months
  • What results you hope to achieve
  • What'’s in it for them
  • How you plan to measure progress
  • What hurdles that might be encountered so that they can better prepare
  • What recourse they have to ask questions

Obviously, dealing with difficult people is a complex process, but if you follow the above suggestions, you'll make your life much easier.  Just remember, you can'’t wish difficult people away. You have to learn how to deal with them.  As the "great philosopher," Dolly Parton, said: "If you want the rainbow you got to put up with the rain." And, sometimes you need to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” to quote Muhammad Ali.