Unlocking Teams Resistance to Change

Written by on October 6, 2014

At one time or another, all leaders face the challenge of bringing their teams onboard with change. Some rise to the challenge, and others shy away.I’m reminded of a client in the financial sector, whose experience represents a great example of the pitfalls and opportunities that change presents. Sought out for her talent, she was intentionally recruited into the organization to create change, specifically to challenge her team and raise the bar on performance. Although very aware that change can be negatively received, she was still surprised, then frustrated, by the immediate resistance and criticism she faced.

No matter how committed she was to the new direction, or how often she communicated the opportunities and benefits, the team wasn’t responding. Negatives in performance became more visible, causing her to question the team’s abilities. A message was beginning to form with the team: “Pull up your socks or move on.” She didn’t know how she could be any clearer. Not surprisingly, conflict was building and trust was eroding.

Recognize Team Resistance As A Valuable Cue

This leader faced a key decision point that’s common in the midst of resistance: Push the team even harder or pause. Courageously, she pushed the pause button, engaged in coaching, and found her turning point. Through our conversations, she quickly developed insights into the organization’s culture, which she hadn’t previously considered, along with new understanding of her own reactions and blind spots with the team. She agreed to take ‘another look’ at her team, to focus more clearly on existing strengths and skill gaps, this time with a plan for development. Ultimately, she found new line of sight.

As she found new focus and energy, she was able to open up a different dialogue around change. With coaching support, she found her way to honour the team’s history, and invite them into the future through the creation of a ‘change roadmap’. With actions, milestones and metrics developed collaboratively, the team now had greater clarity and saw their connection to a common goal. Conversation took a turn to the positive, with celebrations and a little ‘fun’ attached.

Adding coaching within team meetings further accelerated changes in communication, behaviours, and attitudes, as I was able to observe and point out team patterns in ‘real time’, as they worked through their business issues. By inviting her coach into the room, my client was also supported in noticing and responding to team signals, as they occurred.

Shifting old habits, the team learned to table issues and address them collaboratively. Their collective success was visibly confirmed through the organization’s annual employee satisfaction survey: After years of low scores, their results moved to the top of the charts – and the highest within their functional area!

Keys To Success

This leader’s openness in recognizing how her approach facilitated success was a key attribute to the team’s achievement. Although her frustration with the team’s early refusal to change nearly precipitated an early exit and loss for the entire organization, she took responsibility for her leadership. Welcoming coaching resources, with a willingness to look at herself and her team holistically, she set a tone that untangled negative dynamics and enabled approaches she and the team had never before considered.

And The Moral Of The Story Is?

As a leader:

  • Notice your habits and assumptions when leading change.
  • Understand team resistance as a signal that something is missing from the change approach.
  • Sidestep the blame game and be open to exploring barriers.
  • Use coaching feedback as a catalyst to create new ways of working, for yourself and your teams.