Change Management: When Team Members are Deeply Resistant to Change
In this series of posts, I’ve been discussing some of the challenges managers face as they help team members negotiate organizational change. The series has a light-hearted approach, using pseudo-scientific names: Benightedness, Phobia, Obliviousia, and Xenoskepticosis. Having covered the first three in earlier posts, I will now address the last on the list, Xenoskepticosis.
I picked this name because, literally translated, it means “skeptical of anything foreign or unfamiliar.” Healthy skepticism is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t become contrarianism, i.e. Xenoskepticosis, a deep resistance and non-receptive attitude toward perspectives that are not aligned with one’s own point of view.
Don’t Confuse Contrarianism with Conflicting Value Sets
Managers need to take care not to label team members as contrarian just because they are difficult. For example, Baby Boomers and Millennials operate from such different value sets that they often view each other as inflexible—and tend to react rather than respond to each other as their buttons are pushed. This is a conversation for another day—as it’s more about how one approaches work, rather than what gets done. Today I’ll focus on plain old heels-dug-in resistance to change.
Set the Right Stage for an Honest Conversation
When addressing concerns with a team member who appears deeply resistant, it’s very important to set the stage for the conversation. For example, pick the right place to meet, usually a neutral place, maybe even lunch, where, as a manager, you can explore the team member’s motivations through non-threatening, honest, appreciative questions. You could begin with, “What do you like about working here?” That could be followed by questions like: “What motivates you each day?” “What do you enjoy doing most?” “What about your job makes you feel most satisfied?” You can then segue into questions that might unearth issues that underlie the resistance. “What do you find most challenging about your job?” “If you could offer changes to improve your job, what would you suggest?” It’s important to respond authentically, to really listen to what the team member is sharing—to affirm, recognize, and value it.
Responses to these questions will provide context and, hopefully, insight to the team member’s resistance to change. At this point, you should have established sufficient rapport to explore what you see as the core issues. Maybe it is not Xenoskepticosis, but reasonable objections to bad ideas. If that is the case, its time to step back and fix the systemic problems that created the bad ideas. But, if your conversation leads you to the conclusion that this team member has Xenoskepticosis, what’s the next step?
Clarify Core Issues
Tell me about your priorities. What are the most important things you need to accomplish?
Let’s use the example from my last post. Lets say your organization is undergoing a shift in its core strategy, from an activities focus to a relationship-management focus. Team members’ success is no longer predicated upon the number of events or the attendance they generate. Now success depends upon identifying high value clients, donors, members, or customers and strengthening their loyalty and investment in the organization through purposeful engagement.
The team member you are currently talking to is not making any shifts in practice. So, your next series of questions might be: “Tell me about your priorities. What are the most important things you need to accomplish?” “What are you hoping to achieve in terms of measurable outcomes?” “As you see it, how do they fit in with the shift in the organization’s core strategy and expectations?” Now that you’ve demonstrated that you listen and you’ve heard the team member’s rationale, it’s time to shift the conversation to expectations.
Be Clear and Explicit About Expectations
It is now time to be explicit. To bridge to this conversation, you can acknowledge what the team member has done and how hard this individual is working—if that is the case. Explain to the team member what must change and what must be delivered as outcomes. Be specific about key activities and outcomes; and schedule a next conversation within a week to ten days to review progress and challenges. Immediate follow-up is critical.
In my experience, most people who are deeply resistant to change are not able to transition to a new role. Still, as a manager, I believe it is important to give people a chance to negotiate a difficult transition; and to do so—especially with Millennials—you need to have a heart to heart conversation as I’ve outlined above. The goal is to have team members who are happily engaged in productive work.
Don’t Drag It Out, Make a Decision
If a team member does not demonstrate a change in attitude and behavior within the first few follow up meetings, its important to implement a plan to move the team member to another role within the organization or out of the organization. If you can offer the team member options, it makes the conversation more palatable for the team member. Be very clear about the time frame and steps for transition. Don’t delay, it only exacerbates the problem.
Obviously, in all of your actions, you must follow your organization’s proper HR procedures, including required documentation.
- Be kind, listen
- Be clear and straightforward
- Create a cadence of accountability
- Be decisive: don’t compromise when the job fit isn’t right