Whatever strategic project you are working on, it’s going to have an impact on someone. Strategic, transformative change requires you to be on top form with your influencing skills because doing things that change the status quo feels uncomfortable to most people.
Part of your project management role is creating an environment in which people can navigate the uncertainty – and understanding resistance to change is definitely part of that.
Resistance is Normal!
I feel like I should say that resisting change at work is a normal response. It’s the human condition; it’s what people do when they understand their place in the world and you come along and want to change that. Plus, changing the way we do things takes energy – effort in understanding what is required and then in shifting our behaviour away from what we normally do. And people are not terribly inclined to do that for you unless they really have to.
This situation is made worse if you’ve had some organisational change that hasn’t gone so well in the past. People who have been burned by a project that failed are even less likely to want to go through all that again; however many times you tell them that this time it’s going to be different.
You probably know of managers who promised that things would change and then never followed through, or projects that were overly ambitious and failed to deliver on their promises. Situations like this can leave a legacy – one where the team isn’t hugely invested in delivering change because they don’t believe the outcome is going to be positive, if it even happens at all.
So if your team isn’t warmly receptive to your suggestions that they back your project, don’t worry! They’re doing what any other group of individuals would do in a similar circumstance.
What Happens when People Resist Change?
Can you ignore them? You might be able to. But if they are influential enough, or there are enough of them, they can cause significant issues for your ability to manage the project. Not least because they will suck up all your time dealing with their daily small problems.
When people fight against change, consciously or unconsciously, you’ll see:
- Your project timescales being pushed out due to delays, especially around decision making.
- The team’s motivation begins to wane, especially in people who did support the change – the constant uphill struggle to get this project advancing will rub off on those around them.
- Project benefits being eroded.
That’s why it’s worth looking out for resistance and moving to quickly deal with it in order to increase engagement.
How to Spot Resistance to Change
Sometimes you can call out the resistors. They are the people who complain a lot about the new project, and aren’t afraid who hears them. They might even tell you directly that they don’t support your work. (I heard the following recently: “Well, I’ll do it, but only because I know no one is going to end up using this product anyway.” Gee, thanks.)
However, sometimes people who aren’t supportive of your project are better at hiding it. These are the kind of things to look out for on your project:
- Stakeholders who don’t turn up to meetings, or who turn up so late that their contribution is worthless.
- Stakeholders and team members who don’t complete their actions after a meeting and you are always carrying forward their tasks.
- Individuals who don’t reply to your emails or return your phone calls.
- People who “don’t have time” to come along to learn more about the project, or to follow through on things they said they or their team would do, especially if those tasks relate to actually implementing some element of the change.
- Team members who don’t contribute at all. Silence is never the same as agreement!
- Stakeholders who question the way you are doing things. These individuals won’t go all the way to challenging the project and the benefits directly, but they will try to slow things down by undermining the process, the tools you are using, the experts involved (or not involved) and so on.
If you spot any of these, then you’ve found someone who isn’t keen to make your project a success.
Sometimes resistance to change is simply a challenge and if you address that well you can win them over. So these signs aren’t always going to come from people who are looking to see you fail. As you dig into why they are resisting, you’ll be able to uncover if it’s a genuine challenge that you can deal with or if it’s a sign of someone who is looking to justify their reluctance to do the work.
Resistance isn’t Always Bad
The great thing about being able to spot the resistors is that now you can do something about them.
The big tension on a project between people who want to get the work done and people who don’t is a source of conflict. That’s a good thing! Conflict is something you have the tools to deal with. You can negotiate, investigate, influence and resolve conflict.
If you can find a genuinely positive outcome to a conflict situation, you can walk away knowing that the resistance to change is going to fall away, and that you have gained a new project supporter.
Moving On From Resistance
Having spotted resistance to change on your project, and having brought the conflict out into the open, you’ve got the opportunity to engage and pick up some benefits as a result.
You should be more likely to achieve the project’s stated benefits and reduce the negative office gossip around your project. You should be able to engage with the teams affected by the change so that they can be better prepared for what is coming (and this shouldn’t be underestimated). You can change the type of communication you do so that the messages are forward-looking and positive, instead of having to deal with challenges and arguments all the time.
Research by Towers Watson says that companies that are highly effective at change management and communication are 3.5 times more likely to significantly outperform peer companies in their industry than organisations that don’t deal with change effectively.
However, if you are making someone redundant as a result of your project, they aren’t going to suddenly embrace the change, however much work you do to try to engage them in what’s going on. Some of your project stakeholders are going to stay on the ‘resistor’ side of the fence for the foreseeable future.
At least by going through the effort of spotting people who are not supportive of your project you’ll have identified these individuals and can manage the project’s relationship with them as you move forward. In itself, this is highly valuable.
Ultimately, you are looking for an outcome whereby your project can have the best results possible, and the change is successful. The more work you do to engage, influence and negotiate with the people involved, the more likely that is to happen.