‘No, not that one!’ my four-year-old shouts from his bed while I’m getting his clothes out for the day. We need to be in the car in 28 minutes. Not a lot of time to get him up, cleaned, dressed and fed.
On the inside I’m about to explode. On the outside I’m showing my best impression of understanding-mummy-who-isn’t-getting-desperate. So, I ask him in a sturdy voice:
“Okay, sweetie, not the red jumper, and not the blue one and no t-shirt either… and you need to wear something today. So what would you like?”
To my surprise he answers: “First I want to eat. Then I want to wear my Cars t-shirt’.
I’m stunned. It actually worked. Even with my ranting son.
I had pretty much given up hope for that day. But hey, I can live with his request perfectly fine. He’s happy, I’m happy.
This little example from home life is actually quite similar to what happens in the workplace all the time.
Imagine this scene: You’ve produced a thorough plan to ensure your department can make the desired steps to improve efficiency and get rid of a few bureaucratic procedures which are holding you back. You have asked for input beforehand from a number of employees. Next, you present your plan in a meeting and what happens? All you get are moans and criticism: ‘That’s never gonna work’.
Resistance all over, like always.
The biggest mistake you can make as a leader is treating resistance as something that’s theirs; belonging to the other person.
It’s them resisting your plans:
- They don’t react in the way you would like them to.
- They are being tricky.
- They put up barriers against innovation.
But what is happening to you while all this is going on?
You are resisting their reactions as much as they’re resisting your plans.
And that’s the bit you can influence directly.
Resistance is a two-way street.
You can probably explain perfectly well why it annoys you: ‘I want to move on, make things better. They will benefit from it in the end, their jobs might even be at stake if we don’t make this change…’
The reasons for resistance can be brought back to two basic things: the fear of losing something (a healthy company, a sense of being in control) or a strong desire to reach something new (a much better workplace).
As for your own resistance, you can often define it quite easily. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
The funny thing is, the same is true for their resistance. Theirs also makes perfect sense. Like you, they have their fears and desires that spark their reactions. They just aren’t as obvious to see from your point of view, because all you see is the defence mechanism. Like putting their foot down, being tricky, trying to stall things.
So how can you deal with their resistance?
If you want them to come onboard, your job is to find out what these ‘tricky people’ want or need.
Behind their ‘We’ve tried this a hundred times before’ you might find they fear becoming invested and then being disappointed (again). Or they have a desire to try out a completely new approach, and yours just isn’t radical enough.
Knowing about their fears or desires creates an opening to incorporate them in your discussions about the new plans. They may contain some valuable information to help transform your plans into reality. Bringing these fears or desires to the surface, means you can turn their resistance into constructive contributions.
How you can do this, boils down to following five simple step.
1. Start by repeating what they say, using their literal words as much as you can
Try starting your sentence with the word ‘and’. It may feel silly, and it really helps:
‘And we’ve tried this a hundred times before…’
It’s the simplest way to show that you’ve heard them and taken them seriously. You acknowledge what they’ve said, which puts people more at ease. They no longer feel the need to repeat their point of view.
2.Then turn the focus round and ask about what they (do) want
‘And what would you like to have happen?’
You’re inviting them to think along with you, to give you a clue of what’s behind their resistance to your plans. This is where you may have to overcome your own resistance to their resistance to be able to do this in a properly curious way. Otherwise it’s not going to work. If need be, try these steps on your own resistance first!
They might reply: ‘I want us to find a way to move forward that will actually work this time, rather than the fruitless attempts we had so far which just costs us lots of energy and frustration’.
You will find that, like yourself, it may take a few go’s before people manage to shift their focus to their desired outcome instead of the problem. So just repeat the question a few times if needed. Keep going, it pays off in the end.
3. Repeat their answer, literally again (but loose the words referring to the problem)
‘And you want us to find a way to move forward that actually works’.
Again, you acknowledge what they say, showing them you’re taking them seriously instead of trying to convince them they’re wrong.
More, you repeating it helps them to take in what they’ve just said.
Resist the urge to add in any of your own words. It is clearly a sensitive matter to them (otherwise it wouldn’t trigger their defence mechanisms) and you never know what might trigger a more defensive reaction instead of cooperation.
4a. If what they say simply isn’t possible, say that and go back to step 2
You may need to explain why this isn’t possible for you/the organisation.
For example: ‘Keeping this the way it is isn’t going to work; we have set out a growth strategy and we are dedicated to making it happen. So, knowing that, what would you like to have happen then?’
4b. If what they say is possible, explain how you will incorporate their contribution
In this way, you start negotiating how your desires can come together. You suggest what you think you can do with their input and give them a chance to react to this as well.
‘So, shall we have a look together at how we can make sure that what we do will actually work this time?
5. Check if you’re on the same page
It’s so tempting to stop here! Often this step gets overlooked but it makes the difference between ‘asking for input’ (and doing your own thing with it, a Change 2.0 approach) and ‘creating a desired outcome together’ (a Change 3.0 approach).
Even asking: ‘Is that okay for you or is there anything else?’ can be enough to explicitly check for real commitment.
If it turns out not to have been enough, start over.
What does this require from you?
Like with my four-year-old, you will have to manage your own state and emotions to be able to do this. Every time you get a ‘tricky’ reaction, you are being pulled back into your own resistance, which you will either have to set aside for the time-being or deal with it first. You may need to ask yourself what you would like to have happen, knowing that others may not just go along with your plans.
The good news is, following these simple steps does work nine times out of ten. And, as a bonus, you ‘train’ people to take ownership of what they do want, as much as what they don’t want. If you keep putting the focus on what they do want when things aren’t going the way they’d like, you’ll see that they will start doing this unprompted.
Complaining doesn’t come free anymore. You convey the message: ‘We will take you seriously but it requires you to go beyond telling us what doesn’t work as well’. As long as you’re willing to go along with them within your boundaries… like letting them have their breakfast first.