How CEOs Can Win Over The Resistors to Change

resistanceCEOs enacting change management widely acknowledge three things about change and resistance:

  • Organizations today face an increasing rate of change
  • The more changes an individual or organization encounters, the more likely they are to resist change
  • Successful change initiatives must proactively manage resistance.

In this model of thinking, resistance is usually viewed as negative. We search for the early adaptors and potential sponsors of a change to help us convince others of the change benefits, and we try to prevent resistance from developing by actively communicating with and training the affected employees. All of these are good and beneficial efforts that do contribute to a successful change effort.

However, by viewing resistance as a negative, we miss the opportunity to turn the emotions that drive resistance into change motivators. Instead, CEOs can reframe resistance to help connect with and persuade the resistors, potentially creating even stronger, more vocal change proponents.

People may resist a specific change for any number of reasons. They may believe that the change will actually harm their company, they have too much work to do already and that they don’t have time for this change, or they might be afraid that if they cannot adapt or learn the change, their own job will be at risk. Their resistance rarely comes from apathy or laziness, but instead it comes from their own fear of what the changes mean for them.

While all of this still sounds negative, this emotional investment is the key to why resistors are so important and why resistance should be embraced. If someone already cares and can be made to see that their fears are unfounded, they have the potential to be a much stronger change advocate than the people who are either lukewarm or, worse, apathetic to a change. To understand why this is true, and to develop methods to effectively approach resistance, the best practices of classical rhetoric offer us a blueprint for understanding and effectively communicating with resistors.


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Rhetoric simply means the art of persuasion. It Is the skill of using language to convince someone else of your point of view, and while the terminology around it has changed over time, the best approaches are consistent. In fact, to find the best description of most effective rhetorical appeals, we look back to Aristotle, who broke rhetoric into three parts or modes: logos (the appeal to logic), ethos (the appeal to ethics), and pathos (the appeal to emotion). All three of these are necessary to an effective piece of rhetoric, meaning that all three of these should be used when communicating with all the stakeholders in a change effort.

However, for our resistors, we need to pay special attention to the pathos/emotion element because we must connect with them in terms of why they already feel so impassioned or fearful about the change. Then, if we can connect with the resistors’ initial emotions, we are able to adequately address and allay their fears, changing their fear and resistance to understanding and support.

With all of this in mind, CEOs should approach the resistors with a focus on not just mitigating the resistance, but converting it. This starts with two questions: what aspects of the change are creating the strong reaction that the resistors are having and how can we allay those fears? The steps below provide a blueprint for understanding, responding to, and converting resistors into advocates:

  1. Identify what aspects of the change are causing fear: this may be individualized, but often similar fears will be felt by multiple people in an organization.
  2. Understand those fears: This means doing some digging to find out why these fears have popped up. Are they based on rumors? Did past changes yield negative results? Are people and resources stretched too thin?
  3. Recognize those fears as valid: The primary reason why people respond negatively to opposing arguments is that they don’t feel like their objections are being fairly heard. If you begin by acknowledging the fears as valid, then you open the door to real communication and persuasion.
  4. Tailor your communications to address the fears: This sounds obvious, but in change efforts the communications are often directed toward explaining change benefits without addressing resistance and fear. The benefits being promoted may not address everyone’s fears, so the messages that explain why people should not fear the change are as important as the ones that explain the benefits.

While these methods are not guaranteed to win over all resistors, they set the stage for more meaningful conversations that argue for the benefits of change while also recognizing the validity of resistors fears, creating good will and helps to win people over in the long term.

 

Read more: Engaging Your Entrepreneurial Community To Thrive Amid Change

Dr. Kristen Wright is a Manager and the Change Management Practice Lead at Evans Incorporated. Kristen is an experienced change management trainer and she frequently works with government clients, assisting them to implement change management best practices across a variety of initiatives. Prior to her consulting career, Kristen earned her PhD in English and taught English, writing, and rhetoric at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

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