Breaking Through Resistance

Posted on 22. Jun, 2010 by in Gary's Blog

On June 11th Mike Levine, Adam Klein and I hosted the third in a series of Senior Executive Leadership Breakfasts at Newsweek’s headquarters in New York.  This session featured Jon Katzenbach speaking about how to use the informal organization in a company to ignite change.

Jon, who wrote the seminal book on team effectiveness, The Wisdom of Teams, has a new book out called Leading Outside The Lines.  His perspective is that to accelerate the pace of change in an organization you have to use the informal part of the organization to push the formal side of the organization into action.

The formal side of the organization is about planning and logic.  The informal side of the organization is about passion and emotional commitment.  Jon’s main point was that to overcome resistance Senior Leaders must find the influencers inside their organization and enlist them in the change process before going company-wide.  Find out what they’re thinking, let them experiment, take action and deliver a win.  Then leverage their work and their influence in the organization to build buy-in.

The breakfast attendees, CEO’s, COO’s and division Presidents, found the concepts very appealing.  But the real payoff came in the discussion about the resistance they face in their organizations and what to do about it.  Several of the participants focused on the problems they have getting their direct reports to really embrace change.

As a psychologist, my perspective is that it takes a lot to get senior people to take the leap of faith required to embrace change.  First, you’re talking about people at the top of organizations who have been successful doing what they’ve done for years.  They’ve seen countless flavor-of-the-month “change events” that have delivered less than brilliant results.  Why should they believe this next one will be any different?

If you can overcome that issue, the next hurdle is dealing with the fact that not many executives have led successful change efforts.  In some ways you’re putting them in a difficult position: “I haven’t seen this work before and I don’t really know what to do myself”.

The way best way to break through this resistance is to start small and create a quick victory. In working with executives who are leading change efforts, my approach, once they’ve explained their vision and rationale for the initiative, is to get the team to take an action quickly that results in almost immediate, positive change.

You can talk all you want about why change is necessary and will improve performance.  But nothing trumps resistance more than a tangible win.

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