What to do when your staff resist change


What do you do when your people don’t want to hear about the changes you have to implement in your business?  Peter Massey believes much of the answer lies in your attitude as a manager – particularly your own mentality towards the proposed adjustments.We spend a lot of our lives trying to make things happen. But when things don’t go as we’d like, it’s usually down to one of two reasons: either we didn’t do it well, or others didn’t want it to take place.

Okay, let’s assume you are good at what you do, you listen for what could be done better still, you’re clear on what’s to be done, and you’re an all-round nice guy or gal. What is stopping things happening, then? Why don’t others want change to occur?

The truth is that there are rational and emotional reasons for staff resistance. Rationally, the people that work alongside or for you could be overloaded already. Alternatively, they might have information that you don’t.

The good news here is that you can deal with these things logically. You can understand how to do consumption planning or create ‘landing slots’. People and organisations can only take in so many changes at one time, after all. So it’s a logical step to create plans from the receivers’ point of view rather than the project’s.

And when it comes to staff having information that you don’t – well, the reality here is that you can find out what you don’t know. Once you have this knowledge, you can work with it. You can make clear that the information has been taken in to account and thereby ease any staff concerns.

Emotional reasons are a different ball game, however. People may perceive a risk to themselves, or feel that they won’t be competent to cope once the changes have been introduced. Sometimes, staff might think that they’d be betraying their colleagues by accepting the changes. On other occasions, they simply won’t believe it can or will be done. Alternatively, they could be sceptics – the type that have ‘seen it all before’ – or they just might not trust your motives for bringing in the change in the first place.

What can you do in these circumstances? How can you begin to deal with resistance when it’s built on emotion rather than logic?

The first point of call is to appreciate that these reactions are very human – things which we can all relate to at some time or another in our own lives.

If you believe that the basis of human behaviour comes from our history as group animals that hunt on the savannah, then you may subscribe to three theories about human behaviour:

  • Fight and flight.
  • Survival of the fittest – where the alpha male and alpha female get privileges.
  • Social behaviour is important to group and individual survival.

If you take this basic anthropology in to account, maybe you can get further with your changes. What do I mean by that? Here’s an example…

To lead or to be led

You are in a project meeting and your project leader tells you the way the project is going to be run. “First you will collect data, then you will go to suppliers, and then you will implement.”

Inside your head you say to yourself: “Don’t tell me what to do. I know what to do and it’s a bit more complex than that.” You fight. You resist the alpha member of the group.

But in behaving this way, do you shout “no way”? No, you play along knowing you’ll sort it later. You don’t want to be that disruptive there and then. You can see others feel the same way. You know it’s not going to be a successful project.

Now imagine you have a different project leader – one who says: “What should we be doing here?” By behaving this way, he or she brings expertise, seeks out opinions, weighs them up with the group, summarises a lot and agrees some conclusions. They’re seen to make decisions where needed, but with obvious context. And resultantly, there is nothing to fight about. You – as a project team member – respect the outcome, even if it’s not your own ideal. You move on to choose roles and actions among the team. You feel like it can happen.

What was the difference? How did one project leader ‘put the resistance in’ while the other avoided it? Sure, the second manager avoided fight and flight. They didn’t play the power card. They did involve the group. But more than that, they worked with something that underpins our human behaviour: our mental models.

Mental models are what get fixed in our minds. A complex jumble of things we accept as facts, knowledge, givens, perceptions, opinions and points of view, they allow us to compare what we see in a situation with our knowledge framework and make judgements accordingly. They are important to our perception of ourselves and of things around us. They allow us to explain things.

Once upon a time these frameworks were about danger, food, survival, winning or the ability to stay warm. Today, our mental models take many other things into account. But our human emotional reactions are still driven by the same things. We are ‘hardwired’ to react in certain ways.

What do I mean by this? Well, as children we learn some things the hard way, and we have some things ingrained in us from the outset. A basic set of human emotional reactions is hardwired to a greater or lesser degree. We then learn many additional things that make up our experience. These drive reactions too. Combined, they form our mental models.

How to start using mental models positively

Mental models are subconscious to many people, and once we have them in place, we find it very difficult to challenge them – either consciously or subconsciously.

Despite the evidence presented, we still find ways to explain what’s happening consistent with our mental model. Sometimes these are ‘personal’ ways – for example: “I know how to run a project”. Sometimes they are frightening social or organisational ways, such as racial stereotyping.

In between these extremes is ‘industry think’. For example, most mobile telecoms people I talk to don’t think they compete with Skype, let alone that they’ve already been overtaken by the firm. Yet Skype has over 50 million subscribers.

Worryingly, most telecoms companies believe other telecoms companies send bills and collect money. Why? Because, until now, all such companies have.

Try suggesting to your own organisation that it works out the true cost of sending a bill, including the consequent contact it generates. It’s probably around 50. Then try suggesting you give away all calls under 50 and do away with the bill. Does it make sense? It depends on your mental model.

Going back to our successful project manager, the reality is that some good managers have learned how to reveal mental models to people and among groups of people. The very best then construct new, shared mental models together through discussion and openness – above all, through listening.

They learn, often subconsciously, what someone’s mental model is and relate the changes they are requesting to that mental model. Better still, they get the group to understand each other’s mental models. Having done that, they construct a better one together, and in so doing, achieve their objective.

Meanwhile, the not so successful project manager is clashing. He or she pushes their mental model onto the group. If they have the same model, that’s fine. But if they don’t, then this is where resistance occurs. Perhaps this is why so many executives recruit new people when they take a new role; why so many of the people they recruit, they’ve worked with before.

Shared mental models, after all, define teamwork and building teams. It goes beyond shared values. It also explains why younger people learn faster. They have fewer mental models and fewer points in those models that they won’t move.

But ‘young in mind’ is a state older people can learn, too, by being aware of their mental models and opening them to challenge by others. It’s why outsiders can add a lot of value quickly in the right circumstances. It explains why some people achieve a lot and some a little.

So next time you are leading a meeting, think about the mental models of the people concerned. Make sure your technique allows time for those models to come out, to be shared. Then look at how you can help people to challenge themselves so they can improve their own mental model of the situation and for future situations.

Moreover, next time you are in a meeting and hear a voice inside your head telling you to resist, take a look at what’s going on and how you can open yourself to change your own mental model of the situation. Go on, challenge yourself. You could be surprised at the results – both as a manager and a team player.

For more reading on mental models, take a look at Peter Senge’s ‘Fifth Discipline’ or any work on systems thinking.For more on human behaviours, try Nigel Nicholson’s ‘Managing the Human Animal in the Information Age’ or Allan and Barbara Pease’s ‘Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps’.


Peter Massey is managing director of Budd in the UK and co-founder of the LimeBridge alliance, which operates in 11 countries
Tel: +44 7802 793515
Website: www.budd.uk.com

Published On: 25th Apr 2006 - Last modified: 31st May 2017
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