How Leaders Can Overcome Resistance to Change

David Bowie as Ziggy StardustNobody likes change (other than David Bowie… “ch-ch-ch-changes!”  Good luck getting that song out of your head). I know if you do anything that changes my routine in the morning, my whole day is whacked.

We hate change. Heck, most of us hate getting change at the grocery store because all those coins just weigh down our pockets and purses.

As a leader, though, your job is to get others to want to change.

Getting other leaders to open up to change is hard. You have to help them understand what’s in it for them, because invariably you are changing something in their very comfortable lives. They are not going to like you when you do that. They are going to resist and find every reason to point out that your conclusions and recommendations for change are wrong.

If you want change to happen, you have got to help others understand that change is in their best interest. Show them you are trying to drive metrics they care about (I will dive into an example here in a minute). Help them understand that they stand to benefit from the changes you are recommending.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

When I was running call centers back in my credit card days, there were very different sets of metrics that people received incentives on. There was the call center, which was receiving incentives based on operational efficiency. They were rewarded for how many calls they were handling an hour, their abandon rate, their customer service scores, and how many dollars were they collecting while they were on the phone (it was a credit card collections call center).

On the other side of the fence, there were folks like me who were looking longer term at the economics and profitability of individual accounts. Sometimes we were advocating for treatments in the call center that were great for long-term metrics, but really, really bad for the short-term operational ones.

The leaders in the call center wanted their teams to get you on the phone and say “you owe us $100. Please pay now.” All they wanted to do (and what they received incentives for) was to get you to say “yes, I will pay you,” take a payment, and then get off the phone and move on to the next one as quickly as possible.

What we were concluding drove long-term value was building a relationship with the customer and understanding his financial situation. If we better understood how we could help the customer and what his long-term goals were, we found those accounts were more profitable than others. The operational effect of this approach, however, was that those phone calls started getting longer and longer and longer.

In the short-term we were messing up the call center’s metrics, but long-term building a more profitable relationship with the customer. What we had to do was sit down with those call center folks, help them understand the long-term behavior we were trying to drive. We had to explain why it was in the best interest of the broader organization and of the company as a whole.

We were pretty up front with those call center leaders and we told them we understood how we were going to mess up their metrics. We knew if we wanted to achieve the long-term changes that drove profitability we had to blow up our call center operating efficiency metrics.

We as leaders knew if we wanted to make those changes happen, we had to be willing to stand side-by-side with that call center leader in front of their boss and ask that boss for relief on those operating metrics. He had to say “if you want to make a change that’s good for the long-term business, this is going to be bad for the short-term for operating metrics. We need you to change the operating metrics incentive plan.”

As soon as those call center leaders knew we were willing to go to bat for them and they weren’t going to get hosed on their personal incentives, they were much more willing to support the changes. In the end, we made the changes, changed the incentive plan, and improved the overall profitability of the business.

If you want to get other leaders to change, you have got to be willing to stand side-by-side with them. You have to help make their case for change and do what you can to protect their interests while simultaneously pursuing your own. When you partner with others in change, change can actually happen.

– Leading change starts with leadership. One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership is a helpful start toward strengthening your own leadership style. There are plenty of suggestions in there for how you can lead your teams more effectively. CLICK HERE to get your copy.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

9 Responses to “How Leaders Can Overcome Resistance to Change”

  1. davidburkus says:

    Good words. Oh, and thanks for getting Bowie suck in my head.

  2. As long as – and I have come across this – changing the metrics is simply to avoid having a tough call to make.

    The number of times I came across a ‘restructuring’, to get people out of existing roles because effective performance management wasn’t in place for a few, you would be simply amazed.

    Other than that proviso – I like it Mike!


  3. My favorite part…”what we had to do was sit down with…” That’s the key. You have to communicate, listen, communicate, listen…over and over. Dictated change is dangerous. At some point, people realize that growth will always equal change. What worries them is that not all change equals growth.

    Thanks for another great post that I can tweet to all my twitter buddies!

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Tim. And thanks for sharing it! The more people we can get involved in this movement, the better…

  4. andy_mcf says:

    Think your assumption is a bit off, even though your conclusion and action statement(s) are spot on.

    It isn’t that people dislike change… they dislike being changed. (People change all the time.)

    The key to leadership is to help people see the value in the change (what’s in it for them). When this happens, they willingly change.

    Thanks for post!

    • paula leslie says:

      Hi Andy,
      Really like your comments about people “…dislike being changed. In my years of working in psychology, the change seems to come when the people want to change.

      Paula Leslie, LCSW, BCD
      Essential LIfe Strategies

  5. Mark McGuire says:

    Good example, Mike. There seems to be some parallels between the call centre case you described and the way that banks contributed to the financial crisis (individuals chasing short term incentives to the long term detriment of the institution they work for). See: “Joseph Stiglitz Testimony: Banks Have Failed ‘Their Basic Societal Mission”:

  6. Sandy Costa says:

    I enjoyed your comments. I speak and write a fair amount on the issue of change which I like to refer to as The Great Mysterious. You are absolutely right that before we tell people “how” we are going to change we need to tell them “why”, so when folks ask time and again why we are changing, you can tell them-to get to a better place! It is also good to remind folks that while we are drawn to mystery stories, books and movies; we shun the mystery of change. Folks with microscopic comfort zones need to embrace life’s mysteries and recognize the wonder that mysteries often spawn. You might enjoy my blogs at All the best, Sandy

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