How to work with people who are resistant to change?

I can bet that you have had an idea for which you have been extremely passionate. You have made the research, the concept and you have tested it among your peers for feedback. However, once you present it outside your circle, even in front of people who would benefit from your idea, you have faced nothing but a billion suggestion why your idea won’t work. 

The truth is that bringing change it ain’t an easy task. Especially when you are put in the position to convince others that your idea will help them or their operations and primary activities. No one wants unrequested help. You might be right and totally altruistic in your desire to help others. But this by itself does not help you to bring others on board. And the consequences might be devastating not only for your idea but also for your emotional world – the rejection is not something that we easily accept. Regardless of your level of acquired resilience, on simple biological level rejection is translated as a lack of support for one’s survivor.  

The reasoning why your ideas might be rejected could lay in different places. Of course, you might not be aware how to present, or simply your idea not to be good enough. However, the reason often can be found in one of the most basic human behaviours – resistance to change. 

We, as humans, are preconditioned to attempt to keep everything the same, even when it brings us more negatives than positives from a subjective point of view. We are more willing to accept more of something that is familiar and thus translated from our brains as a secure thing than go out there and face something unknown. Unknown is scary. 

When I was working in Belgium I faced the long-lasting consequences of WWII. Regardless, that Belgium is a well-performing country in many areas, I was observing high levels of resistance to change even among young generations. Compared to my country, which is in general among worse performing in the EU, the Belgian society is significantly less willing to make drastic changes in the way they work.  When I started digging deeper into the topic, I found out that WWII and the devastation in the west-European countries still echos in humans behaviour. The experience of post-war famine has penetrated into generations and defined people as more risk-reversed. (This article explains the long-lasting trauma and how it can be genetically transmitted among the different generations.)

I am stating this because we often miss respecting others viewpoint when it doesn’t agree with ours. In order to achieve the changes I wanted I had to adapt and work in the best possible way to overcome the resistance. Here are my findings and conclusions that I am sure could be applied to a diverse set of situations:

1. Respect and acknowledge

The first step is often completely neglected. The moment we receive a rejection, our mind is presenting us with different strategies for overcoming the initial rejection. The most common one is to antagonize the opponent. Stating “they do not understand” / “they are too… to pay attention” /  “they are incapable” will not help neither you nor your idea or them. It is a simple defence mechanism. 

When it happens simply let it come and then let it go. You can not skip completely the blaming stage in yourself, but do not let it hold you in its hands for too long. And once it goes, the constructive work can start. 

If we assume your idea is truly good and your audience is resistant to accept it, accept the resistance. 

The truth is that people have valid reasons to resist. Do not undermine their right to refuse the new. I know it is very fancy to “be innovative, fast to adapt and flexible”, but very few of us truly are. Respect their rejection. Truly. Acknowledge that where is a question, there is also a possibility for one to say no. 

Never belittle someone’s reasoning. They might be wrong in the arguments, but their fear is real. And in almost every change-resistant behaviour, there is a good amount of fear that lays beneath the surface. 

2. Do the understanding journey

This part is completely in your control. It is up to you and only you to understand your audience and reasoning. To understand it so well, that it starts making sense even for you. 

Ask questions, double-check your assumptions and test the knowledge you are confident you possess. Expand your viewpoint. It will only enrich the ideas you bring to the table and your personality. Voluntarily go and explore the other’s reasoning. 

And once you devote yourself to understanding and bring peace between your ideas and other’s reality, you go on with the next step. 

3. resistance or resilience

Define if it is resistance or resilience. There is a big difference. If someone resists the change you offer, you have a way to possibly overcome this. But if it is a case of resilience, it means that the change you want to bring is going against someone’s core beliefs.

I would never encourage you to push even an inch further with that person if the contradiction is on such level. Core beliefs and values normally can not be altered externally.  So please, pick your battles or at least your opponents. 

4. the current state

So let’s begin the overcoming stages. Always start with a rich explanation of the current state and the problems you are observing. Stay true to the facts and present possible developments of the current state – how it would go if everything stays the same. 

Do not present premature solutions at this stage, but take your time to observer peoples worries and concerns. Everyone has a frustration point. Gather them. Gently and with the needed respect. 

Explain why there is a problem if you do not apply any measures, without playing with fears and highly emotional phrasing. It lacks taste and it can backfire quite badly. 

5. delegation of trust

Building trust is essential for each change involving 2 parties.  As mentioned above the main cause of resistance is the fear of something. In order to develop a stable relationship of trust with your audience, your authenticity is required. Be completely honest, even when you are not comfortable and especially then. 

When presenting the state of affairs and the possible forecasts, be clear of the aspects that are worrying you personally, be open to express what you do not know. Open up and be vulnerable. 

Only when you position yourself at the same level as your audience you can create the needed atmosphere for delegation of trust. And here as well you go first – you put your trust in their capacity to suggest and embrace changes. And you this by asking them how they would like to solve the problem. Present the current state and ask them for a solution. 

Accept and discuss their suggestions and approaches. Take care to have a productive logical conversation. I know this sounds easy and in reality is not, so please to pay attention to lead a constructive conversation. You can always bring people back with the right questions. 

Be sure that you are conveying the message that they are capable of solving the problem. And that is actually true. Let them inspire themselves with their own thoughts and suggestions. Believe me, they will fight even harder than you to change the moment they have suggested it. 

During this phase is good to structure some timing and goals for the process – until when the goals must be achieved or change to be implemented. 

6. Structured Empowerment

This is my favourite part. 

Involve them and preoccupy their minds with the question of HOW to achieve the desired state. It is up to you to create structure in which borders they can work and create and empower them to do so, as we discussed in the previous point.

What is essential – is the structure. Make sure that they know the basics – give them resources and the desired way of coming back with ideas and propositions. Define the way that they give each other feedback and always remind them about the goals you have set together. 

7.Shared Responsibility & Rewards

Once you let people work towards the desired state, make sure that you share the responsibility – their mistakes are yours and your rewards are theirs. Here is, unfortunately, no place for ego. Instead, your reward will be that the change you have wanted is achieved.

In case you want to share your thoughts with me over this article or you need support to bring constructive change – simply connect with me.