Pulling In, not Pushing Back

How to Get Everyone on Board with Transformational Change

It’s a timeless tale in the world of consumer/patient research. We work with our clients to help solve their most integral business challenges.

We use a human-centric research approach to uncover the insights that will point to the strategy – the one that will radically change how our clients engage with their customers. With our core clients on board, we can’t wait to get into the boardroom to ‘wow’ other key stakeholders with a ground-breaking strategic direction.

But what’s this? Push back? We are ready to embark with our core clients on a journey to transformational change, but other key stakeholders sit silently or offer remarks of resistance, clearly reluctant to take this journey with us.

There are sensible reasons why situations like this occur. People are inherently risk-averse – we avoid putting ourselves in situations where the outcome is uncertain or unknown. Transformational change is risky. New insights often lead to new ways of tackling a problem – and though this is exciting, we are asking for a leap of faith (albeit evidence-based) into the unknown.

This scenario is not uncommon, and it dampens the value that exceptional market research brings, which is effectively bringing our clients and their broader teams through insights to strategy to execution. Just like insights are not useful if they don’t reveal a clear strategy, clear strategies are not useful if they are not well executed. Strategies that are not well received by key stakeholders, won’t be well executed.

As strategic consultants, then, not only must we understand the consumer’s world, but we must also understand our client’s world. A critical first step is to immerse ourselves in our client’s business by engaging with key stakeholders to unearth the internal networks and dynamics in the organization. These dynamics inevitably shape how solutions and innovations are implemented. With this deep understanding, we can then leverage core psychological and behavioral science principles of change management to ensure that transformational change is comfortable for all people involved.

Principle #1 – Stop blaming the resistor(s)

When resistance to change occurs, we are all too quick to blame the resistor. Because of this self-serving bias – the tendency for people to shift blame onto others in order to maintain a positive self-image – we don’t always acknowledge that perhaps resistors have a sensible reason to resist (they often do), or that we ourselves may be contributing to resistance in some way (we often are). Being empathetic is an important first step to managing change.

Principle #2 – Don’t get defensive

It is poor practice to get defensive in professional settings, but it is also natural for people to have a visceral need to defend their work. It may be easier to fight off this natural instinct by recognizing that resistors of change are often engaging in the act of sensemaking – the process of making sense of a given situation. As part of this process, stakeholders deliberately think through both the positive and negative implications of our recommended strategy for themselves and the organization.

When genuine concerns are dismissed as stubbornness, it risks exacerbating the issue and perpetuating a vicious cycle of resistance. For example, it is not uncommon for people to ignore counter-arguments for fear of giving them a platform and making themselves look bad. However, a more powerful way of dealing with counter-arguments is actually to acknowledge them, label them as credible, and identify that they are a crucial part of the change process.

Principle #3 – Encourage debate but be prepared

With Principle #2 in mind, it is necessary to be comfortable opening up the floor to questions, evaluations, and scrutiny. When getting everyone on board is especially difficult, it can be useful to schedule a working session for the sole purpose of this type of discussion. But come prepared! During the sensemaking process, people will be quick to reject points that are not well justified.

The good news is that the inverse is also true – people in the sensemaking process are also likely to accept strong, well-developed rationale. This means that we must work with our primary client to align on not only why our insights are meaningful and grounded in good research, but also how these insights will lead to personal and organizational benefit.

Principle #4 – Build trust through early and frequent involvement

The best way to tackle issues of resistance is to be proactive. Whenever possible, relevant stakeholders should be involved in the research process. First, we work with the primary client to identify who the key stakeholders will be. These stakeholders can be looped in at critical touchpoints throughout the research process (ex. insight downloads, workshops, client calls). Trust is necessary in this process and can be built through transparency and a genuine interest in the opinions and concerns of others.

The road to transformational change can be rocky, but with a deep understanding of our clients’ world and an empathetic and inclusive approach, it doesn’t have to be. Pulling-in at uncomfortable moments, moments where there is a desire to push back, is a crucial skill in creating meaningful business growth.

References & Additional Readings

Decoding resistance to change. (2009). Human Resource Management International Digest, 17(6) doi:10.1108/hrmid.2009.04417fad.008

Ford, J. D., Ford, L. W., & D’Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to change: The rest of the story. The Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 362-377. doi:10.5465/AMR.2008.31193235

Ford, J. D., & Ford, L. W. (2008). Conversational profiles: A tool for altering the conversational patterns of change managers. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(4), 445-467. doi:10.1177/0021886308322076

Klonek, F. E., Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., & Kauffeld, S. (2014). Dynamics of resistance to change: A sequential analysis of change agents in action. Journal of Change Management, 14(3), 334-360. doi:10.1080/14697017.2014.896392

Tormala, Z. L., & Petty, R. E. (2004). Source credibility and attitude certainty: A metacognitive analysis of resistance to persuasion. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14(4), 427-442.

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