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Leading in times of change

How can leaders overcome resistance to change? Two change management experts share their tips.

Published on

March 22, 2023


Resistance to change isn’t always negative. In fact, in the workplace, it can actually be quite valuable. Especially if you’re curious, find out where it comes from and use that knowledge to improve the change you’re trying to implement. This was one of the key messages we learned at our recent panel discussion on leading others through change, which featured our co-founder and CEO Kathryn Tremblay in conversation with two executive coaches and change management experts, Julie Hess and Christine Pietschmann. Every leader wants every change to run smoothly—productivity depends on it—and yet many leaders face resistance when introducing new things. How can we overcome that resistance? This event highlighted:

  • Why we resist (the science behind it)
  • What is the value of resistance
  • The four phases of change, and how to lead others successfully through them
  • The SCARF model: Our five individual change triggers

Why do we resist? Science.

Resisting change—whether in the workplace or in life—is a normal human reaction that has been part of the human brain since day one, designed to keep us safe from harm. We’re wired to constantly scan the environment for threats and rewards, and the minute we sense a threat (i.e., a change), whether it’s a physical or social threat, Boom! We react and either move away physically (flight) or dig in our heels and resist it. In the workplace, when something new is introduced, our brain quickly processes it. Is this going to be good or bad for me? If it determines it's going to be bad, we naturally want to move away.

Where’s the value in resistance?

Sometimes people who resist change know something that leaders might not have thought of. Maybe from their perspective, for example, they can see how the roll-out of that new software platform should be adjusted based on their work experience and can suggest ways of making the implementation more impactful, effective and successful. Leader Tip: Try to be curious. Build in opportunities to ask as many team members as possible for their input on the proposed change before you roll it out. If you can incorporate their suggestions, you’ll convert them into change champions.

Leaders and team members: Different reactions to change

The reaction to change is naturally different for those who lead it and those who need to adapt to it, but on both sides, there’s a lot of emotion involved.

  • Leaders are familiar with the change, know it inside and out and have worked hard to bring it to life, so of course they might get annoyed or frustrated when team members openly resist the proposed new change (e.g., new org structures, work locations, software programs, etc.).
  • Team members who see the change for the first time might resist it if they don’t understand it fully and see it as a threat.

Leader Tip: Try to put yourself in the shoes of your team members, show empathy and ask questions to understand what their resistance is, so you can help them navigate through each of the four phases of change faster and easier.

Leading others through the four phases of change

Julie walked the audience through the four main phases of change, explaining how to lead others as quickly as possible through each phase—particularly Resistance, where productivity takes a hit.

Leader Tips:

  • Phase 1: Be sure to counter any rumours with frequent, factual information.
  • Phase 2: Since resistance is based on emotion, “you can’t logic someone out of it,” as Julie says. If you notice frustration or anger, try to understand what's happening for that person. Be curious, help them surface and understand their fears, and give them the opportunity to move forward while still being clear about performance expectations.
  • Phase 2: It’s not always easy to recognize people in the Resistance phase because the signs can be subtle. Rather than openly showing anger or depression, resistors might start calling in sick or skipping meetings.
  • Phase 3: Celebrate every success moving forward while acknowledging that not everyone will do so (as shown by the Exit arrow). Sometimes people can’t adjust to change and may choose to leave the organization. This can be the best option for both the individual and the organization.
  • Phase 4: Praise those in the Commitment phase and try to engage them as “influencers” who will encourage resistors to come on board (while being careful not to overload them).
  • Phase 4: You can’t always have one-on-one conversations with each resistor, so try to engage champions in designing the change, so they have ownership, commitment and are motivated to help you drive change forward.
  • Overall: Use two-way communications to encourage dialogue and gather insights (e.g., email, town halls, and small group chats, where leaders can gather and filter back concerns to the leadership team.)

Using the SCARF model to turn challengers into champions

Christine walked the audience through David Rock’s SCARF model, which includes five main domains that trigger our natural “fight or flight” reactions to threats. We’re all unique; while we can be triggered by all five, each person tends to have one or two main triggers. Christine explained how leaders can use this model to determine each person’s main trigger, so they can help them overcome their reaction to the change.

Leader Tips:

Example of change: You learn your office is moving to a new location 3 kms away.

  • Status: Those whose trigger is Status might worry if they will still have an office beside an important leader. They’re competitive and want to be at the top and feel respected. Leader tip: Highlight that this change can provide them with more opportunities for advancement and that everyone is giving up their office, so all executives will be sitting nearby.
  • Certainty: Those whose trigger is Certainty are “list people” who like predictability and need repetition. They’ll worry about their commute and whether they can still drop their kids at the same daycare or go to the same gym. Leader tip: Set out clear timelines for these people, so they can plan. Over-communicate so they retain their sense of control.
  • Autonomy: These people like being in the driver’s seat and don't like following other people's orders. Leader tip: Give them a sense of choice and provide them with time and space to figure the change out for themselves. Explain that perhaps the new office will allow for flexibility around their hours or the number of days in the office, so they have some autonomy.
  • Relatedness: Those in this category are sensitive to safety and belonging. They organize group lunches and events and will wonder how this change will impact their work relationships. Leader tip: Use “us” language like, “We’re in this together.” Point out how this change will strengthen relationships. Example: “In our new office environment, you’ll sit much closer to that team you’ve been trying to work with more closely.”
  • Fairness: These people will look for anything that shows unfairness or favouritism. People who jump the queue or cheat the system really bother them. They’ll wonder if the new location is better for the interns who will be closer to university or for those who prefer to walk to work, rather than drive. Leader tip: Share how the new office space will improve transparency and fairness for everyone. Maybe everyone has the same desk or office space.

Change will always be uncomfortable

Change is hard and being the one who leads it is uncomfortable. As a leader, you will always need to introduce new things that will help the company grow—and there will always be resistance.To overcome resistance, the key is to:

  • Highlight how the change ties into your company’s strategy and why it’s important to move forward.
  • Be clear and transparent in your communication to reduce fear.
  • Try to engage as many influencers as possible to help convert challengers into champions. Look for input and incorporate it when possible.
  • Use a model like SCARF to understand the root of resistance and help individuals through each phase of change through to commitment.
  • Be empathetic while also clarifying performance expectations.

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