With Martin G. Moore

Episode #56

Dealing with Change Resistance: You will have to shoot a hostage

For a leader, trying to shift a culture, improve performance, or lift the standard of a team is fraught with danger. Ideally, everyone would recognise the necessity for change, the benefits to be gained, and the logic of the plan. They would then get behind you with their unequivocal support.

In reality, this is not how the world works.

So what do you do when the change management frameworks and theories cease to work, due to the entrenched change resistance of a handful of your people? I have chosen a rather graphic expression for this – shoot a hostage (not literally, of course!) – because I need to get your attention.

If you can’t shut down the passive aggressive resistance that some people deploy, all the change experts and process frameworks in the world won’t help you.

Remember, not changing is NOT an option!

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Episode #56 Dealing with Change Resistance: You will have to shoot a hostage

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences, and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hey there and welcome to Episode 56 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership Podcast. This week’s episode, Dealing With Change Resistance: You will have to shoot a hostage.

For a leader, trying to shift a culture, improve performance or lift the standard of a team is fraught with danger. Ideally, everyone would recognise the necessity for change, the benefits to be gained, and the logic of the plan. They would then get behind you with their unequivocal support. In reality, though, this is not how the world works. This episode addresses what you need to do when the change management frameworks and theories cease to work, because of the change resistance of your people.

I’ve chosen a rather graphic expression for this, ‘shoot a hostage’, because I want to get your attention. This will be one of the key determinants of the success or failure of your change initiative. So, we’ll start with a quick flyover of the top of basic change management theory. I’ll briefly talk about the leader’s role in change, we’ll look at different types of change resistance and the impact it has on the organisation, and finally, I’ll put a case for taking decisive leadership action for the good of your people and the organisation as a whole. So, let’s get into it!

Change is all about people. Getting them from where they are now to a better place. Helping them to change their habits, their views, their behaviours, and ultimately their actions to implement a new way of doing things. But as Niccolò Machiavelli said, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

Leading change is not for the faint of heart. There’s been an incredible amount of research on change and many tools and frameworks created to help us lead change in our organisations. Yet still, as many of you would have already experienced, most major change initiatives fail. What do the basic change management frameworks provide for us? Well first, a roadmap for how to establish new ways of doing things and to move people from the current state to the desired new state.

They focus on people’s behaviours and what you might need to do to help them change. They seek to answer the question, how do you align people towards a common goal and motivate them to act in pursuit of that goal? Frameworks like John Kotter’s Eight Steps of Change, or Prosci ADKAR are commonly used to help leaders guide their people through the different phases of change.

Let’s just pick one, let’s take a quick look at ADKAR, just to give you an idea of how these frameworks hang together. Now, ADKAR, A-D-K-A-R, is an acronym, representing the change that an individual goes through. Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement are the five phases. Awareness of the need for the change to take place, and obviously it’s got to be a reasonable change that you can buy into intellectually.

Then, the desire to support that change. Okay, I understand why we’re doing it, and I want to get behind it. The knowledge of how to change, because there’s always a learning element to it. Ability to demonstrate the requisite skills and behaviours required. And then reinforcement, to make the change stick. That’s that loop that says, “I did this, it started to work, I can see the benefits and I’m going to go and do more of it.”

Now interestingly the process isn’t linear. It’s iterative. For example, a certain individual might acquire the awareness and the desire in the early phases of the change management process. Then, as they start to acquire more knowledge of what they have to do to change and how it affects them personally, this can sometimes negatively impact their desire and so we head back to step two to work on the desire again.

This is a very individual thing. Everyone moves through these phases at different speeds. Many organisations use the standardised change management frameworks and they spend a lot of money employing change management specialists. Then why is it that so few culture change initiatives are actually successful? Well, the answer’s pretty simple. The frameworks are a set of tools that can only be brought to life by strong leadership that drives outcomes.

Without strong leadership, the tools are only of marginal benefit, however, the temptation for a leader is to believe that because they’ve hired the experts and followed the process, change will automatically happen.

Let’s look at the leader’s role in change. Managing change has turned into multibillion dollar industry. Boards are now talking about it as their top priority. Although, if you listen to Episode 54, you realise the influence a board has over culture ranges somewhere between not much and donut. Everyone talks about it, and pretty much every senior executive claims to have made culture change in their organisation.

For me, sure, I think I managed to change the culture in parts of the organisations I ran, but I would in no way suggest that I changed the culture across the board. After five years running CS Energy, and I’ve got to tell you, I was going like stink on culture change, as hard as I could, but I can honestly say there was pockets of the organisation that had a culture that would be the equal of any office you would find on the planet, but equally, there were pockets where I was actually embarrassed at how poor the culture was, and this was in the same organisation.

This is because so much of the success of change depends on individual leaders through the line. It’s the individual leader that determines what standards they set for their team, what behaviours they allow, what things they turn a blind eye to, what things they emphasise as being important. Even the extent to which they will tolerate the resistors in their team. Now, it’s very difficult, even with your direct reports, to see exactly what they’re doing in terms of their team performance in real time.

Although eventually of course, the results will tell the story. But if you think all the leaders through the line are implementing the directives and standards you’re trying to set at the top, you would be very much mistaken. This is why the foremost obligation of a leader is to build leadership capability below you. This is also why you need to take decisive action as quickly as physically possible with those leaders who can’t lead change.

Regardless of the type of organisation you’re in, the principles of managing change are exactly the same. Bottom line is, it’s the leader that determines the success of the change initiative. It is not the change expert and it is certainly not the change framework you use.

Change resistant comes in many forms, and I just want to share a few of my observations having lived the dream on numerous occasions. As a leader, you need to be really vigilant to look out for all of these. The overarching principle you need to understand as a leader and have a firm belief that guides your actions is this. We would love everyone to make it through to the other side of change, but experience and human nature tell us that not everyone will.

Some people, through no real fault of their own, whether it’s a lack of resilience or other psychological or emotional issue, and others because they willfully choose not to get on board with change. For those who simply can’t cope, you give them all the support you possibly can within reason, to help them to make it. However, the faster you identify that they’re not going to be able to make the transition, the better. For you, for the organisation, and for the individual.

It has to be really clear to all your people where the boundaries are, and I’ve had to say to people in the past, “If you can’t get onboard with this change, then you’re going to have to make a decision. The change isn’t optional, and as much as I can give you support, if you don’t want to make the change, then it will be really painful for both of us and it can only have one outcome, so please make a decision.”

It’s important that as a leader, you force the choice. You have to make it clear that not changing is not an option. Let me say that again, because this is the cornerstone concept of change. Not changing is not an option. I still love you, I want the best for you, I respect your choice, whatever that is, but you are indeed making a choice. I have to make decisions for the good of the team and the organisation, based upon the individual choices that people make.

With good people, you need to give them that respect and courtesy while in no way diluting your resolve to make the change happen, and to make it stick. Then, there are the defiant ones. Some people are outwardly resistant and defiant. Now, this doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it still surprises me and I must admit, I find it as amusing as hell. It goes something like this.

I’m talking to a lower level guy, yes, it’s always a male and it’s always a frontline worker, who says to me something to the effect of, “Mate, I’ve been here for 20 years. I’ve seen a dozen of you guys come and go, and you try to change a few things, but then you’re gone, and everything goes back to the way it was. I was here before you came, I’ll be here after you leave, and nothing’s going to change.”

So, it’s always the same for me. I show enormous restraint in resisting the urge to sack the person on the spot, because when I step back and think about it, this is actually gold. It tells me so much about the organisation, the people, and most of all, the leadership. If I’ve got a low level punter who’s brazen enough to say that to the CEO, then he must be running rings around his own managers.

So then, I map a line from that individual back to my direct report. Every single leader in that line is then suspect of being a weak leader who has no boundaries on the workforce, and no control over what happens. I start at the bottom, and work my way up through the layers of leadership to plot the weaknesses, so I know who needs to go and who gets to stay.

It’s not the fault of the guy who said that to me. People will generally only do what the culture and leadership permits them to do. Remember, the standard you walk past is the standard you set. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to get out and talk to the people in your team at all levels. If you just rely on what gets presented to you through your direct reports, you may start to believe your own bullsh!t, particularly in times of change and transformation. You develop a skewed view of what’s really going on, and ultimately your bullsh!t detector becomes weak over time.

Before you know it, there you are at a board meeting, a networking event, or a job interview, making fanciful claims of being a transformational leader who drives culture change. In reality, leaders who can truly drive change are pretty rare, just ask the people who work for them. Now, the cases I’ve spoken about so far are pretty obvious and relatively easy to deal with. The biggest problems come when you have an opinion leader in the business who covertly resists change, and influences other people to also resist.

It screams of poor culture. Dependent, avoidant, conventional, oppositional culture. This is the unhealthy passive aggressive culture that can so often be prevalent in traditional, longstanding industries, particularly those that feel they operate with the protection of labour unions. These people, and yes, it’s most likely that you do have some of these in your organisation, will hold the whole organisation and everyone in it to ransom.

They will white-ant and undermine anything you try to do, they will reason with the silent majority about why management is wrong and that change is bad. They will spread fear and rumours about the detrimental nature of the change to individuals, they’ll find excuses to not do the key things that are required of them in the change, and most interestingly, they’ll convince the silent majority that not changing is actually a valid option.

Now, in all three types of resistance, the impact of these resistors on your organisation can’t be underestimated. It’s amazing how a few bad eggs with a strong power base can sway a workforce in a way that the formal leadership line can’t. This is because quite often they are more committed than the leadership of the business. They may have more to lose than the leadership, including their power base, and sometimes they feel that they’re a protected species.

You have to root these people out. They don’t always show themselves as plainly as the punter I spoke about in the first example who told me in no uncertain terms what he thought. They may hold a relatively senior position and will almost certainly have a level of power and standing within the organisation, and they are poison. If you allow them to go unchecked, it will end badly. You won’t be able to drive the change you’re trying to lead, your organisation will suffer financially and culturally, and the flow-on effects are incredible. Once the resistors win a battle, it emboldens them, and anything you try to do as a leader, be it big or small, will become more difficult.

So, what should leaders do? I want to be really clear here, which is why I’ve chosen such a graphic expression. When you come across someone like this, you have to shoot a hostage. There is no other way. In every major change initiative I’ve undertaken, it has been essential sooner or later, and trust me, you want to err on the side of sooner. Most leaders wait too long, forlornly hoping that the resistor will decide to get onboard, which by the way, I have never seen happen.

Not only that, many leaders rationalise that everything is working well despite their weakness in inaction, and they turn a blind eye. I also want to be really clear that this has nothing to do with being tough, oppressive, or intimidating. It’s simply about having the strength to put the good of the team and the organisation ahead of your own fears, and certainly ahead of the selfish agendas of those who would stand in the way of sensible, positive change.

It should be easy to work out who it is that needs to go, and there may be more than one. To be clear, it’s likely to be a relatively senior person. It’s likely to be someone that has a measure of respect with their team, which may not necessarily realise that this leader has been holding them back for years. It’s like a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome. They’ll generally be knowledgeable and have significant expert power.

In short, it’s someone that everyone else thinks is indispensable. Shit, they think they’re indispensable. Otherwise they wouldn’t have the gall to pit themselves against a necessary and value accretive change initiative. They need to be terminated quickly and emphatically, and people need to know why.

If you truly believe that the organisation and the people in it, are going to be better off through the change, then why on Earth would you risk all of that because a handful of self-interested people want things to stay exactly the way they are? In order to lead change, you need to be strong and make decisions for the good of the people, even when it’s at the expense of an individual who refuses to play ball.

But the benefits of shooting a hostage are incalculable. It’s like a cancerous growth. Clearly, if you don’t want it to spread through the whole body, so to speak, you need to cut out the tumour. But more importantly, by removing a resistant individual, you create a positive force for everyone who is left behind.

You’ve just demonstrated a couple of really important things to the whole workforce. First, not changing is not an option. Second, no one is indispensable, not you, not me, no one. Third, passive aggressive resistance and white-anting simply won’t be tolerated. You’ve also earmarked yourself as a strong leader who believes in doing the right thing and isn’t going to let the organisation be held back by a few bad eggs who’ll do whatever they can to try to preserve the status quo.

This might all sound a little harsh, but believe me, it is a necessary part of leading change, and when your culture change initiative stalls, and you don’t know where to go, look to this one. Most major culture change fails because the leadership isn’t sufficiently committed to seeing it through, and doing whatever it takes to drive the change.

They kid themselves that it’s all going swimmingly, but they aren’t prepared to do the difficult things that would make the change a reality. Don’t get me wrong, everyone needs an opportunity to change and they need your support, and they deserve a chance. But you can’t afford to make it optional for anyone.

Alright, so that brings us to end of Episode 56. Thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please share it with your network and if you’re an Apple listener, please take two minutes to rate and review the podcast as this is how we reach even more leaders. I’ll look forward to next week’s episode, Challenging, Coaching, and Confronting.

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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