I was in my mid twenties when I faced my first challenge as an agent of change. I was the architect of a bold new initiative. Perhaps you are imagining a merger of two global enterprises. Not quite. I was charged with a significant internal transition in the office. It was new furniture.
The “powers that be” had decreed that old was out and new was in. It was time to transform the space. We were making a change from the old desks to new modular furniture.
Most were excited. One was not. The new furniture was comfortable, functional, and attractive. Almost everyone agreed. Almost. There was a hold out in my department. When the time came to move out the old furniture and move in the new, his response to the new furniture was straightforward and impeccable: “I’m not moving my desk!”
Recently, I was swapping stories about our experiences of change with a friend. In the course of our conversation my early experience with the furniture change popped into my head. I hadn’t thought about it for years. I remembered this particular incident because I didn’t handle it very well.
It’s been nearly three decades. At the time, I was young, inexperienced, and unprepared for the resistance that I encountered. As I dredged up my memories while eating lunch, I was surprised by my hesitation to share the details. Many years after the fact, I was a little embarrassed by my inept approach. Wisely, my friend encouraged me to write down some of the lessons I learned.
Never underestimate resistance to change.
As a young leader, I assumed resistance to change would be minimal if the change made sense to me. Perhaps it was naiveté. Perhaps I was guilty of believing that the benefits would be self-explanatory. I failed to assess my team’s level of readiness for change. My communication about the impending change was poor. I deemed it unnecessary to prepare my team members for the change and listen to concerns before it was crunch time.
Consider your best opportunities for leading change in your present context. How might you be guilty of underestimating resistance to change? What are the ramifications?
Remember, when it comes to change – when change comes matters greatly. Without getting into details, the resistance to change that I encountered early in my managerial career was more about the timing than anything else. The person who resisted the change was wrestling with many other changes in life. As a result, the change in furniture triggered an exaggerated response.
For some leaders, the right time for change is always “now!” For other leaders, change initiatives stall due to analysis paralysis. Know yourself. Gather thoughtful leaders for open and honest discussion about timing. My furniture fiasco illustrates how a small change can sometimes be perceived as a large threat to personal wellbeing or safety. If something feels unsafe, it is natural to resist. It may not be possible to wait for the perfect time for change. It’s wise to carefully consider whether it’s the best time or not.
Communication is key.
Inopportune timing and a failure to consider the magnitude of potential resistance lead to the worst leadership mistake of all: poor communication about change.
Most resistance to change is rooted in some type of fear. Fear grows in the dark. Fear isolates. Fear feeds defensiveness. When communication is lacking, fear can thrive. Effective agents of change provide clarity, calm fears with authenticity, and provide connectivity. Connect change with vision. Connect people with one another. Connect people with pathways to a better future.
My trip down memory lane has helped me crystalize a few transferable lessons about change. Learning from past experiences is vital. Enlist the help of a trusted team member or friend. Great leaders crave open and honest feedback. Ask for feedback about the clarity of your communication and listen.
When I began to evaluate my first experience at leading change, I recognized that I failed as a communicator. I did not provide a clear picture for all those concerned. I was not prepared to listen to concerns. I was more concerned about executing the change than I was for the people involved.
Was the desk moved?
Leading change can be a challenge to new and experienced leaders alike. At InitiativeOne we help leaders at each stage of their careers learn how to lead change and guide their employees through the resistance and struggles of a changing organization culture. Learn more about our offerings at InitiativeOne.