There’s a commercial I hear frequently on the radio. The commercial starts out talking about how we spend approximately one third of our lives asleep, and the average lifespan of a mattress is 5-7 years. Of course, poor sleep is linked to all sorts of negative health consequences, so the commercial then asks: when was the last time you bought a new mattress that would ensure you the best night’s sleep possible?
While the answer to that question might be one we mumble under our breath, the real question is, “Why don’t people change their mattresses more often?” Logically we know we’d benefit from doing so, and yet most of us find it hard to prioritize the change.
Setting aside financial reasons, I’d argue that this is a classic example of the idea that people just don’t like change. Plain and simple. Whether your spouse suggests buying a new mattress or your manager implements a change in your project management software, many of us often wonder, “Well, what’s wrong with what we have now?”
When it comes to making change, any change, the burden of proof is on the person advocating the change.
As a leader, you are tasked with making changes all the time – and getting other people on board is usually the hardest part of accomplishing that. Most people are naturally inclined to resist change and stick with the status quo until we absolutely have to.
This means you need to learn how to advocate change and overcome resistance effectively, if you want to maintain a coherent team and to avoid spending hours and hours pushing a change that people may not want.
This is something I have thought a lot about. Anyone who has ever taken over an engineering organization as a leader has had to create change. And based on my experience, and all of the ideas from coaching and mentors, below are my best tips for promoting change and overcoming resistance to new ideas.
1. Have a clear vision of what your change will accomplish.
The first step to making an effective change is to determine exactly why a change is in order. It is not enough to get a directive from your boss, or to implement an idea just because you thought it was interesting enough to try. Making a change without an understanding of why you want to make that change is going to negatively impact your ability to get your team on board.
After all, how can you convince and persuade if you aren’t fully engaged with the idea you are advocating? You need to understand your own vision first, why it matters and why other people should care.
Some important things to think about when designing a vision are:
- Why are you making this change?
- What outcome are you hoping for and why does this specific change help you accomplish that outcome?
- How does this change help you achieve your company’s mission/goal?
- How are your employees, peers, and manager(s) going to be affected by this change?
- How will you determine if the change is success once implemented?
It can also be extremely helpful to craft your vision into a story to help encourage understanding. Forming a narrative helps people to grasp the reasoning and outcomes of a possible change, which can help them to visualize the impact it would have on their life and make it easier for them to get on board.
2. Get feedback at every step.
Before you implement or announce a change, first gather some of the key players and propose the idea to them to get feedback first. Think about who are the best strategic thinkers on your team and get their input; they may see flaws with the change that you hadn’t considered and have suggestions for improvement. Even if you end up going with your original choice, people will be more amenable to changes that they got to play a role in developing.
You can also run the idea past people on your team who you know have influence over others and are tapped into the dynamics of the group. If you can get them on board with an idea, they’ll help you spread it throughout the rest of the team (so it’s actually not all on you to do the convincing) and help to bolster support.
The feedback and conversations shouldn’t end when the change is implemented either. After implementing a change, conduct a post-mortem session to discuss what the outcome of your change has been. Is it working for you and your team? What modifications do you need to make now that you see the results of your decision?
You can do a post-mortem by having a meeting with the team, or even by sending out a survey to the team that you can use to plot out future moves or changes.
3. Tell your team why you’d like to make a change and what you’re planning.
Change should be driven by a motivation to see a different, better result. Once you have determined a clear vision for your change, it’s a matter of communicating that to your team in a way that is meaningful to them. This means speaking their language and addressing their biggest concerns first. It means helping people to see not just how their work will change, but why and how it will be good for them.
It is easier for others to get on board when they understand the motivation behind the change you are advocating. Outline what deficits you see with the current system and how the new system resolves those issues. Focus on solutions and expectations, so people are clear about exactly what will happen and how they’ll be affected.
Keep in mind, you aren’t justifying the change, you are explaining it. If you sound defensive when advocating change, you are going to experience more resistance than if simply explain the details. Be confident in your decision – the way you present information affects the way people receive it.
However, you should also make it clear that you are open to talking about the change with people as well. Let people know you’re there to answer questions and that you’re happy to talk in more detail.
Be prepared to allow for some productive blowback. No matter what you do when implementing a change, someone will be unhappy with it. And that’s okay. What you have to do is utilize that unhappiness to improve your change.
Pinpoint why certain individuals are resistant to the change. Ask them to verbalize specifically what they don’t like about the change so that you can productively incorporate their feedback rather than being forced to disregarding their opinion because they just don’t like change. And try to engage them in creating a solution to the concerns – it should be more than just venting.
4. Stay focused on the positive.
Despite the minor turbulence you’ll experience on your journey to change, it is important to remember and remind others this change was motivated by:
- a positive desire to create an efficient and effective workplace
- your desire to fulfill the company’s mission/goal
- the need to keep up with a continually changing marketplace and industry landscape (what worked well 2 years ago might now cut it anymore!)
Use any opportunity where you discuss the change to highlight a few positive aspects of letting go of the comfortable but outdated practices that may have come before. It might feel like it’s a full time job promoting this change, but promoting it is just part of the process. Your vision should drive you to stay securely in your leader seat whenever you experience turbulence.
In addition, don’t let any negative reactions make you question the change before you’ve had a chance to give it a try. Remember, resisting change is natural, and so you should see it as part of the process, not a problem with the process. Keep working towards the positive and eventually other people will get used to it and maybe even come to like it. (Of course, this is why the post-mortem is such a good idea – so you can continue to advocate for the change since you’ll be making sure down the road using data that it really is working.)
5. Have faith in the power of repetition and give it time.
Someone once said, “Change always happened.” It is true; we wouldn’t be where we are without all the changes that already happened. What feels like a change now will become the status quo with some repetition and time. Stay driven by your vision as the change becomes the norm because eventually it will, it just takes some time (that pesky thing none of us have the ability to speed up or slow down so we just have to surrender to it and do our best in the meantime).
How do you make change part of your leadership practice?
What hurdles have you overcome?
What are your best strategies for overcoming resistance? I would love to hear them in the comments.