Helping the unwilling to become willing participants in change


Change is like water. It is continuously flowing – sometimes strongly and sometimes less so. As we view the patterns in the water flow, we notice that some areas flow directly, and in other places the water eddies more slowly before flowing out in the general stream again. Nowhere is the water actually static, unless it has become completely disconnected from the river. Work with your people and change in a way that keeps you all connected to each other and where you are collectively going.

It’s a perennial problem: how to engage someone who seems unwilling to change, in the process of change?

Over the past month, some of my clients have really been working this challenge particularly hard. Here are a few ideas that may help. No silver bullet, of course, but a line of thinking and some principles to guide you if you too are faced with this problem.

What is your resister, resisting?

No matter what the change is, there invariably seems to be someone who can be described as ‘resistant to change.’ But are they? Most people can change if it makes sense, and there is a need. The human ability to adapt is one of our strengths. It’s a significant reason why the human species has been so successful. So what is going wrong?

Maybe they are just holding on to something that they value dearly about the way things have been. Or perhaps they are making an assumption about the way things are, that doesn’t hold. Maybe they are not really resistant to change; perhaps they just haven’t seen a reason to change their perception yet? Or, another possibility is that they haven’t yet learned what and how to do things differently.

A tool that many of my clients find useful is an empathy map. It helps you walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. Feel free to download one here as you think about how to engage your people.

Seven practices to consider

1. Stop telling and start asking

Ever heard an exasperated parent or manager exclaim, “If I have told them once, I have told them a thousand times!” It’s because in most cases, telling doesn’t work. So if you feel as though this is true for you – then stop telling! Try asking questions instead about why, what and how they could do things differently.

2. Identify what is important to them – engage them where they are.

In a recent organisational restructure, we discussed what most staff valued most in their work and how we could help them see the change in terms of what they value. Different groups of staff valued different things, but when we chunked it up, a familiar theme emerged. That theme was serving their clients. The executive team set out to explain how the new structure would help serve their clients, not just in the short term, but into the longer-term future too. Does it mean everyone agrees? No. But they do understand the rationale, and it connects in with what they care about, so some short term pain and discomfort is accepted. This exec team then spent a great deal of time listening to staff’s genuine reactions and feedback.

3. Have a genuine conversation – seek to understand.

Telling is a one-way street. A conversation is a two-way street. In engaging people in a genuine discussion that seeks to understand why they see things the way they do, you open up the possibility of hearing what is most important to them. And you open up the possibility of enabling the required shifts in thinking and values.

4. Sow some seeds.

In the above conversation, try sowing some seeds – some new ideas about how things could be in the future. These seeds may or may not grow. But scatter away and then stand back with a bit of patience to see if any germinate. You could even water and tend the seeds over time.

5. Change takes the time it takes – be patient

Don’t push for the change you want in one go. Hold yourself back from ‘going for the jugular’ to nail it in one hit. Be clear about the need for a change and be patient. Continue to insist that the issue is addressed, but allow some time.

6. Practice is required.

Most changes that require people to see and do things differently, imply that we don’t already know how to do these things. Even if it seems that the technical skills are in place, allow some time for confidence levels to improve too. So ensure that you encourage people to try things out and give it a go. They need to practice to learn. They need your enthusiastic support.

7. Your answer may not be the only or the best one (ouch)!

It may sound obvious, but watch out for your tendency to believe you have THE answer. Remain alert to the possibility that others have a significant contribution to make too and that the answer or solution will be enhanced as you add more perspectives to it. Your ability to hold your ideas lightly may have a direct impact on how resistant people are to your solutions. This last idea is easy in theory perhaps but very difficult in practice. Our subtle and not so subtle desires for control are often stronger than we imagine. And management theory is founded on the assumption of the need for control. (Another blog is required to explore this idea!)

You’ve tried all the ideas above, and still, no change has emerged?

Well, it’s not a comprehensive list, and there are many other influences such as personality styles influencing communication and interpersonal relationships. There are different stages of adult development that may mean different people are perceiving the challenge in entirely different ways.

Most recently, I’ve also been observing the impact of childhood traumas that shape an individual’s automatic, deeply conditioned responses. We are such complex things we humans.

I encourage you to keep searching for the keys to the door that opens you and others to change. Let’s not indulge in the idea of just getting rid of people because they are not ‘on the bus’. Let’s try harder before we make that judgement.