January 2012 | 

Leading Through Resistance: Why You Need Conflict

leading through resistance

Some leaders thrive on conflict, while others are concerned or even distressed by it. "It's inevitable, so leaders need to learn to expect it, plan for it, and normalize it," says Wharton adjunct management professor Gregory Shea. "At any given time, every organization has a combination of people who think things are more than good enough and those who think things are seriously broken. There's always conflict present. So when you're introducing change, it's in this atmosphere of existing conflict, to which you're adding more."

The Learning Director of Leading Organizational Change continues, "Resistance to change isn't just inevitable — it's a good thing. You're in trouble if you don't have it. It means either you're not being taken seriously, or you aren't paying attention. The question isn't whether change will create conflict or resistance, but how you can work through it."

Effective leaders need a variety of approaches for working through resistance because resistance takes different forms. Shea recommends to the executives in Leading Organizational Change that they must first identify the basis for it. "Some people fear that they don't have the skills to execute the change, while others might not fully understand what you're trying to do. And still others may resist because they see a threat to a vested interest. Those three groups require different leadership actions; there's no one-size-fits-all approach."

One way to understand various forms of resistance is to learn the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) as described by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. "Change includes, ultimately, a sense of loss," notes Shea. "There is some mourning that people go through. It's not a clearly linear process, with one stage following the next, but having knowledge of these stages can be very helpful. The interventions required of leadership are very different at each stage of grief.

"When you need to introduce change quickly, some people may be in shock. As a leader, you need to register the reality without trying to introduce strategic information. Give them something in writing so when the shock subsides, they can breathe deeply and start to understand. With those in denial, you should start introducing information that they can process and relate to. Anger is an emotion, not a cognition. Don't argue with it or stand in front of it. You won't get anywhere meeting anger with anger or with subtle reasoning. A leader needs to acknowledge it and attempt to guide the person or group through it."

Depression is a typical response to change, but Shea stresses that, as with various types of resistance, it can take different forms. "Figure out where it's rooted. Are they depressed because they fear failure, or because they miss their coworkers?" In his book Your Job Survival Guide: A Manual for Thriving in Change, Shea and co-author Robert Gunther describe a number of symbolic events held by enterprising leaders that helped people move through depression while meeting or exceeding the goals of the organization.

One example involves a nurse manager who was charged with closing a long-standing clinical unit with unusually high camaraderie. The staff would be scattered across the hospital, and expectations about retention were low due to a hot labor market and the dismantling of the high-performing, high morale unit. The manager established a cross-level, cross-functional team to plan and implement the shutting down of the unit. The team also planned a farewell event.

Current workers, past workers, and former patients gathered, bringing photos and other mementoes. It was described as an Irish Wake without the alcohol. People cried, laughed, complained, and praised — just as the team had planned. At the end of the event, the nurse manager surprised the group with a member of the facilities department wielding a power saw. He proceeded to cut the nursing station — the symbolic and functional center of any clinical unit — into pieces. Everyone was offered a piece to take home. Perhaps not remarkably, patient care did not falter, the unit closed as scheduled, and only one staff member stopped working at the hospital.

"Leaders who use mock wakes, funerals, and other symbolic events to mark closings or transitions acknowledge that something worth noting and worth mourning happened. Stopping the journey to pay tribute to people, time, effort, and accomplishment helps people to move forward. But to do this, you need to recognize and plan for the resistance to change — well before you implement it."