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  • Pulling In, not Pushing Back – How to Manage Clients’ Resistance to Change
Pulling In, not Pushing Back – How to Manage Clients’ Resistance to Change
Pulling In, not Pushing Back – How to Manage Clients’ Resistance to Change

It’s a timeless tale in the world of strategic consulting. Our clients invest in us to help solve their challenge, so we do just that. We uncover deep consumer insights which lead us to uncover the strategy – the one that will radically change how our clients engage with their consumers in the outside world. We can’t wait to get into boardrooms to ‘wow’ our clients with a ground-breaking strategic direction.

But what’s this? Push back?

What should be a celebratory occasion for all, instead leaves us surprised by the reluctance to embrace what we know is the golden ticket to brand growth. Often the broader marketing team isn’t ready to steer in this new direction.

To help explain this phenomenon, 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. Change is risky. For clients, the prospect of implementing a new strategy can feel like opening Pandora’s Box. New insights often mean new ways to tackle a problem – and though this is exciting to us, we are asking clients to make a leap of faith (albeit evidence-based) into the unknown.

This scenario is not uncommon, and it dampens the value that insights can bring, which is to effectively help our clients move from Insights to Strategy to Engagement and Execution. Insights are not useful if they don’t reveal a clear strategy, and strategies are not useful if they’re not executed on. Strategies that are not well received, won’t be executed.

Therefore as strategic consultants, we must not only understand the consumer’s world, but also understand our client’s world. Lucky for us, there is an entire subfield in psychology dedicated to empirically understanding organizational change. Good consultants will recognize the benefits of leveraging the literature to further build on our experience, ensuring we are as effective as possible in the art and science of client management. Below is a best practice guide for overcoming resistance to change.

Tip #1 – Don’t blame the client

When resistance to change occurs, we are all 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 resistors have a sensible reason to resist too, or that we ourselves may be contributing to resistance in some way. Being empathetic is an important first step to managing change.

Tip #2 – Don’t get defensive

It is poor practice to get defensive in a client meeting, 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, our clients deliberately think through both the positive and negative implications of our recommended strategy for themselves and their company.

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.

Tip #3 – Encourage debate but be prepared

With Tip #2 in mind, it is necessary to be comfortable opening up the floor to questions, evaluations, and scrutiny. While getting everyone on board can be difficult, it often makes sense 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 prior to each debrief, we must take the time to develop a case for not only why our insights are meaningful and grounded in good research, but we should also have a good understanding of how these insights will lead to personal and organizational benefit.

Tip #4 – Build trust through 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, identify with your primary client who these key stakeholders may be. Then suggest that these stakeholders 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.

Success in our eyes is when we can effectively bring our clients full circle. A smooth transition between the Insight to Strategy to Execution phases means that we need to ensure buy-in from our client at every step. If we want to capture the full picture of what the role of a strategic consultant entails, it might be time to officially add “must be effective in change management” to the job description.



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 Psychology14(4), 427-442.