I had a great conversation during an interview yesterday, and found myself answering a question I ask a lot myself when I’m on the interviewer side of the table: How have you dealt with resistance to change?
It’s one of my go-to questions because it cuts quickly to things that matter to me in a leader on my team.
As with all things there is a balance that’s sometimes lost over time as we progress through our careers and do the things we believe we have to do to scale ourselves and our management practice, and to demonstrate that we think at scale so we can keep accruing opportunities and influence.
In an ideal world careers are a layering process: We pick up a skill, we use it day-to-day, and when we take a step up we learn how to teach that skill so we can delegate it; we fold the values it taught us into the cultures we’re building in our growing teams.
When it comes to change management, we pick up a few skills early on, as line managers and small team leaders:
- Building resilient, adaptable teams. Some of that is about creating a culture of continuous improvement, some of it is about not swiping the change credit card frivolously, and some of it is about building trust that you’re the team’s champion and advocate.
- Learning how to carry the message from more senior leaders authentically, even when you wish they’d chosen a different path.
- Learning how to listen effectively when people on your team bring concerns about a change.
All of this is high-touch, “retail” work that involves coaching and developing an individual voice even as you master a “disagree and commit” mindset. You have to develop the essential skill of being authentic and honest with your team, and you have to be able to sit with other peoples’ emotional reactions to change, even as you led them through that change.
I’ve seen two ways leaders can go wrong as they take the next step, especially when they move to a role with a more diverse set of functions:
One kind of leader never sets aside those high-touch habits – they stay “retail:”
Instead of learning to ask their managers and leaders “how’s the team?”, or “what are the hotspots?” (not who are the hotspots, but what are the hotspots), their first reaction is to jump in and bring each person along, or hold group meetings where they’re anxiously scanning the crowd for the resisters. They turn one-time open door meetings into standing 1:1s. They short-circuit their line managers’ ability to build trusting relationships on their own. And sometimes they give away the farm, undermining the change they asked their team to drive because they are too wrapped up saving people who are not coming along.
Another kind of leader runs in the opposite direction, and goes “wholesale” with a vengeance:
They might have been good at building teams with high esprit de corps and high trust, or they might have just been good at getting to “good enough” alignment without so much attrition that it raised any eyebrows. They might look over at the leader who never got away from that “retail” work and see them consumed by its demands. They take away a lesson that some people just don’t want to come along, that it’s on line management to carry the message and accept some losses, but to them it’s just a line management problem. Sometimes they even coach their line managers to think about trust-building, transparency, and active listening as a little wasteful – something to grow out of.
A sustainable path that doesn’t lose sight of the humans in your organization involves balance, and taking advantage of your growing influence and experience to build a management practice that supports line managers and creates space to do good small-team work.
Move your “retail” practice up a level: Help your managers see the difference between active, empathetic listening and indulgence or axe-grinding. Help yourself by keeping the conversation general – what is happening, not who is doing or saying what.
Set the bar for intervention higher than you might be comfortable with, whether your impulse is to get in and sooth resistant people, or to coach the manager to draw a bright line and quit “wasting time on feelings.” People management is just as vulnerable to micromanagement as delivery management.
Take time to develop change management communications and action plans in consultation with your management team. They’ll probably have a better grasp of the “what’s in it for me” issues on their teams than you, and they’ll be more confident and assertive if they have some ownership in both developing the needed change and creating the message around it. If one of your managers is content to say “I don’t think they’ll have any concerns; they just need to accept it,” they’re not doing their job as one of your team stewards.
Remember your role as a supporter, and marshal resources for your team: Take the time to help the specialists around you – communications, HR business partners, program managers – engage with your team with communications planning, “dress rehearsals” for delivering a change message, change management, and followup.
Invest in training and support before managing a big change: Programs like Crucial Conversations or Fierce Conversations help managers learn how to manage their anxiety ahead of a difficult conversation through normalizing the existence of conflict and practicing hard conversations. HR business partners and experienced leaders can coach managers on what it’s okay to say and how to say it that helps boost their confidence when they have individual conversations.
Develop a continuous improvement practice that shows each change is considered, intentional, and communicated both in terms of the need for it, and how it will be carried out, measured, and iterated on.
As that list indicates, I still put a lot of stock in preparation and good operations for change management. But once you’ve moved through the execution phase and are on to measuring and iterating, line managers are the ones who bear the burden of settling and focusing their teams. You should be there for them, supporting them and building their confidence in their ability to lead, but the time to show your own growth happened when you built supportive practices that keep humans in mind while driving the change your organization needs.