Want to make a change, but not getting anywhere? Here’s how to overcome the change resisters.

By Christine Comaford (Neuroscience-Based Leadership & Culture Coach, Christine Comaford Associates LLC)

Not everyone in your organization is going to embrace and celebrate change. When I was a CEO the biggest challenge with change was resistance—and I still see this all the time. But what most leaders miss is that resistance is simply the first stop on the quest for the Holy Grail: a new standard.

From my work with hundreds of successful entrepreneurs, top executives, and political leaders, I’ve learned that organizational change is a continuum. It is predictable, it can be guided, and here is how it works.

First, people start with resistance. Why? Because thanks to Rodger Bailey’s terrific research, we know that 65% of Americans can tolerate change only if it is couched in a specific context. We call this context “Sameness with Exception.” This means the “change” is really just an improvement to what we are already doing. The bad stuff is being removed, and good stuff is being added. Seriously, this is the best way to package a change message. And don’t use the c word—say “growth” (or a synonym) instead.

Many clients ask me if this path is linear. The answer is both no and yes. As you change the overall culture, different departments and different people will be working on different things. They may be in different places, and sometimes people regress, especially if they get hit with one change after another. However, you can usually walk around the company, speak with your tribal leaders (those key thought leaders or de facto leaders in your organization), and get a good sense of where you are overall.

Company Z, a food services firm with nearly $400 million in annual revenue, was changing their business model. It was a big change—they were dumping one entire business unit and launching a new one. The team was none too happy about it. Some were fearful because they were employed in the now defunct business unit, and they’d have to learn new skills to stay employed. The change was essential, though, because due to market conditions the former unit would never become consistently profitable. The CEO, Jessica, did a masterful job managing the organizational change.

First, she had the entire company trained on how change works and how to expect their brains and emotions to react. Jessica’s assistant had the CCA Organizational Change Adoption Path (see above) expanded, printed, and posted in the conference rooms so everyone could openly acknowledge where they were in the process. When people get a chance to visualize the change, how they fit into it, and when they are being included, they experience feelings of safety, belonging, and mattering—allowing them to get on board faster.

Next, she laid out a plan to help the team navigate the five phases.

  • Resistance: This phase can pass fairly quickly when the leader stresses the “same with exception” nature of the change. That’s exactly what Jessica did.
  • Mockery: I love this phase! It means people now have some emotional investment. They are past disinterest and resistance and we can engage them in telling us what they object to. We acknowledged their concerns and asked for their help in fixing what in the CEO’s growth plan was so “lame.” We asked for their agreement to follow the plan once their fixes were made. This led to . . .
  • Usefulness: The mockers worked through the revised plan with Jessica and us and some even—gasp!—acknowledged what parts of it were useful. A few mockers insisted on a few more edits, and the CEO agreed to about half of them with, again, the agreement of their support. This is the most important step, because when something is truly useful, the vast majority of people will use it again, leading to . . .
  • Habitual: Now we’ve got the team members using something repeatedly, almost without thinking. Which leads us to . . .
  • New Standard: The behavior is becoming integrated into how they behave and setting a new behavioral standard.

This process can take months to years, based on how the leader manages the Organizational Change Adoption Path.  For our client, Jessica, the change took seven months to filter through all the remote offices—this is speedy.

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Christine Comaford headshotAbout the guest blogger: Christine Comaford  (@Comaford) was a 5 time CEO with 700% ROI on her exits. Today she is a neuroscience-based leadership and culture coach optimizing company growth. Her current NY Times Bestseller is SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together (Portfolio/Penguin). She has consulted to the White House (Clinton and Bush), 700 of the Fortune 1000, 300 mid-sized business.