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Leading Performance Improvement; How to overcome Resistance, the second inevitable challenge on the path (2 of 2)

April 16, 2008

Every person leading performance improvement (whether an executive, manager or business owner), runs into two challenges on the way to leading others to better results.   Two challenges that routinely derail performance improvement initiatives.   Two challenges that, if not resolved, result in one more entry in an organization’s history of performance improvement initiatives that were not brought to conclusion and were abandoned along side the road.
As mentioned in the previous blog, the two challenges are:
     1. Reliance upon interest vs discipline (internal) and
     2. Coping with resistance (both external to the leader and internal)
This blog is aimed at discussing the 2nd challenge – Coping with Resistance.   I think I can safely say that every improvement initiative runs into resistance.  In fact, I don’t think there’s anything safe or necessarily comfortable about leading a change initiative – it’s just that nothing changes without someone or something driving the change process.There are over 52 million google entries on the topic of change and resistance, 52,100,000 as of 4/15/08.   It’s widely discussed.  You’ll find lots of resources on the web, varying from:

1. Descriptions of the most common reasons behind resistance such as Schuler’s Overcoming Resistance to Change: Top Ten Reasons for Change Resistance

2. To people, such as Patti Hathaway, describing her model of the 4 phases which people may or may not proceed through in coping with change and the associated pain,

3. To Bill Bridges, who has published extensively in the area, and differentiates change from transition…

As I use the term, change is a shift in the externals of any situation: a new boss, setting up a new program…  By contrast, transition is the mental and emotional transformation that people must undergo to relinquish old arrangements and embrace new ones.”

The inescapable truth is that people inevitably resist change initiatives of all types.  As confirmation, Patti Hathaway points to research suggesting that only 23% of all corporate mergers recover their cost, and that only 9% of all software launches across large organizations succeed because of the change hurdle!  The research, and I bet your own experience, suggests that resistance is too much of a challenge for most people leading a change initiative.    When it comes to change versus resistance, resistance wins most of the time.

That being said, if I stopped there, this would be a pretty initimidating blog to read.  My intent is to go beyond one more entry in the 52 million that describe the reality of resistance, and to point out something very simple that you can do to succeed in this area and switch the odds for success to your side if you are launching a change effort.

Here it is.  It’s the biggest single, simple truth to help you succeed when faced with resistance:

>>>Deal with it as a regular part of your job – Expect and Manage Resistance

Do not:
1. Give up, out of fear of losing a key employee or discomfort with the level of conflict
2. Avoid, deny or ignore it,
3. Doubt yourself or the goal of improving performance,
4. Get defensive… you can’t learn anything when you do,
5. Avoid spending time every week managing the associated people/transition process,
6. Forget that the goal is to improve performance, not maintain comfort levels.

It’s really in some ways that simple.   The key to successfully managing resistance is to expect and deal with it.  By “deal with it” or “manage it” I mean planfully anticipate it, actively challenge it when it emerges, and provide the resources (including your own time and presence) to assist people with the transition in incorporating new and improved performance practices and systems.  I say that, knowing it is a very involved subject with numerous keys to successfully managing resistance, including as examples:

1. Expect, understand and respond to resistance as partly a reaction to loss of control; a lowering of felt recognition or value.
2. Address the personal transition part by responding to the Why? and What’s in it for me? questions, and inviting dialogue (not shared control).


Managing resistance also means carefully avoiding the “Do Not” list above.  To recognize, as Edwin Friedman suggested in his book, Failure of Nerve, that effectively leading and guiding a change effort is directly linked to the leaders’ ability to maintain an effective “non-anxious, challenging presence… in the face of resistance and in his words, “sabatoge.” 

Finally, managing resistance means wrapping your head around your objective so that you settle its priority in your mind.  Settle in you mind the initiative’s value and that if push comes to shove, and it will, that you’re prepared to let people go who decide to make a stand of non-compliance or alignment at the point of adopting and supporting the change initiative.   This last point is really a statement of your internal clarity about your goal, its importance and not giving into wobbly knees when facing resistatance.  “Get behind me,” that famous quote from Christ when confronting resistance from one of his favorites disciples, is something every change leader needs to be willing to say.

Bottom Line: Achieving improved performance has tremendous potential pay-offs and because of the resistance to change that is raised, is also a very difficult objective.    Expecting and managing resistance to change is one of the two keys to achieving success in this area.  The very act of effectivley addressing, and not avoiding, resistance to change serves as a foundation for continued performance improvement.

Performance Improvement Technology
Leading Performance Improvement
Tipping Points in Performance Improvement

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