Change and the HR Executive

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Change and the HR Executive

Leaders of human resources departments need to be adept at leading complex change – and often nobody seems to want these changes. This article explains what to do.


by Rick Maurer

If you’re like most human resource executives, you can easily imagine what it’s like to walk a tightrope, struggling to maintain your balance as you carefully step forward on a thin, taut line. Lean too far over to one side or the other – or lose your concentration for a split second – and you’re likely to come crashing down.

The reason this image is so easy to see in your mind’s eye is that you’ve probably walked a metaphorical tightrope at one point or another in your HR career. On one side of the rope, you’ve had managers watching skeptically; on the other side, employees eyed you suspiciously. Both were uncertain about whether they wanted to see you successfully make it to the other end – to implement the policies and programs you claimed were in their best interest – or if they’d prefer you fell off (into a safety net, of course). If you fell, they figured, at least they’d finally know which side you’d really been on all along.

Though the consequences aren’t quite as dire in the workplace as they are in a tightrope-walking act, you and your ideas are on the line every day. The one-word reason you feel like you stumble and fall off the rope far more than you make it across: Resistance.

Resistance is what’s behind the glassy-eyed stares you get following a presentation, the sarcastic or dismissive put-downs you have to put up with when you describe your vision for a new manual, product, or program, and employees’ abrupt departure from the break room when you enter, interested to hear what’s on their minds. What managers and employees are saying to you, either directly or indirectly is, I know you, I’ve heard your ideas, and I don’t get them, I don’t like them, or I don’t like you.

By understanding the resistance getting in the way of your ideas, you can work to turn others’ opposition into support. How can you do it? Use clear, jargon-free language and good listening skills to head off resistance before it takes on a life of its own. When you can’t avoid resistance, learn how to recognize and address it in its three most common forms so you can keep conversations moving forward and bring ideas closer to implementation.

Here are the three primary forms resistance takes:

Level 1 resistance: “I don’t get it.” When you see a person’s eyes glaze over or see a puzzled look on his or her face, the message the person is sending you is, “I don’t get what you’re saying.” That’s your cue to slow down and touch base with the person before he gets so confused or lost in your technical jargon that he loses interest all together. After all, if people don’t get your idea, there’s no chance they’ll support it.

Level 1 resistance involves the world of facts, figures, and data. At a small insurance company, for instance, a human resource information systems manager went to great lengths to explain how a new HR software system was going to automate employee record-keeping and make everyone’s life easier in the long run. Unfortunately, however, she presented the new package using high-tech terms and industry-jargon that few managers outside of the HR function could understand or relate to. All they “got” was the fact that, initially, at least, the software would create more work for them, so they objected to its implementation.

Level 2 resistance: “I don’t like it.” Sometimes your ideas can trigger an emotional response, typically rooted in fear, that causes another person to hem and haw about your idea or to actively oppose it. Some of the fears underlying Level 2 responses include:

The concern that something about your idea will make the other person look bad or lose status in the eyes of others.

Worry that your idea will cost the person his job or endanger his financial security.

Nervousness that your idea will cause the person to fail.

The emotions behind Level 2 responses get in the way of productive communication. If they’re never aired, these fears fester until what was once a tiny bump on the road to implementation becomes an enormous boulder blocking your way.

Level 3 resistance: “I don’t like/trust you.” Human resource professionals tend to have plenty of experience with this form of resistance. The reasons? Managers often believe HR doesn’t know or understand the financial side of the business, so they assume all HR ideas and programs will be a drain on the company. The function’s other primary customer – employees – tend to perceive HR as representing authority and corporate interests. They’re reluctant to trust and talk with HR managers for fear of reprisal.

While the other two types of resistance have to do with your ideas, Level 3 resistance is about you and what you stand for. When you’re the one doing the proposing, your history with others, as well as their bias, prejudice or mistrust, influence how your idea is heard and received.

Understand why others resist you and your ideas and you’ll be able to turn their opposition into support. The key to success: Focus as much energy on your relationships with the people you’re trying to influence – managers, employees, union officials, colleagues – as you do on the ideas or programs you’re trying to implement. You’ve long touted the notion that “people are a company’s most important asset;” now, put your beliefs into action by nurturing relationships as you work with others to bring your ideas to life.

When you sense resistance is at play, take these steps to increase your effectiveness with all of your “customers.”

Concentrate on conversation, not presentation. Engage in give and take; listen carefully to others and find out how they really feel about you and your ideas.

Identify the levels of resistance you’re facing. Resistance is at play all the time, either working for you or against you. When you know what levels you’re dealing with, you can work through resistance and gain the support and cooperation of others. For example, if someone doesn’t get your idea, find a different way to explain it, and offer data, examples and anecdotes – from business and real life – to make concepts clearer. If people exhibit Level 2 or 3 resistance when you make a suggestion, “I don’t like it,” or “I don’t like/trust you,” their emotions are clearly involved. You’ll need to listen carefully to what they have to say and engage in conversation to get at the deeper issues underlying their resistance.

Consider the context (time + place + relationships = the success or failure of your idea).

Interpersonal and other contextual “land mines” are scattered throughout most work environments. If you don’t survey the land and step carefully, you’ll set them off and you and your ideas will suffer. Land mines to consider include:

  1. Your relationship history with employees, colleagues and coworkers.
  2. The way you and your department are perceived by others. What do employees and managers say about you and your department when you’re not in the room?
  3. How clearly you tend to be understood by your “customers.” Would they say you speak common English, or some sort of jargony techno-talk?
  4. The way ideas have traditionally been presented and received in your company, in general, and, specifically, by the human resource department.
  5. The impact your idea may have on others; for instance, it might threaten someone’s job or status.
  6. How the idea might fly given the current economy. Is your timing right?
  7. Your company’s recent financial performance. Have you made it clear to others that you’re taking the company’s current performance into account?

Avoid knee-jerk reactions. When someone cuts you off in traffic, is your impulse to speed up and let him or her know you didn’t appreciate it? If so, speeding up (and possibly tailing the person with your bright lights on) is your knee-jerk reaction to the “trigger” of being cut off. Not only does your knee-jerk reaction not help the situation, it could cause an accident and turn what might have been a relatively minor irritation into a very big deal. The better response? Take a few deep breaths and slow down to put some space between you and the inconsiderate driver in front of you. It’s the smarter and safer way to react.

Slowing down and breathing deeply is also a smart response to triggers in the workplace. When someone resists your idea by saying, “I don’t like it, it’s too much work,” you might be tempted to knee-jerk with defensiveness such as, “I’m the one who’s doing all the work now!”

You might be tempted to react with sarcasm, “You’re right. Why don’t you grace us with one of your brilliant time-and cost-saving ideas?” or with force of reason (this one is big with HR folks, who tend to believe that if they explain an idea repeatedly, others will eventually come to see its wisdom and beauty and like it). You could choose withdrawing, “Okay, then, if you don’t like my ideas, I won’t play” kind of attitude; or by continuing to present your idea as if the resistance – and the resister – don’t exist. The best way to avoid knee-jerking: Discover your triggers and, in your mind or with a trusted friend or spouse, practice responding to them differently, just to break the pattern. Try stepping back, breathing, consciously relaxing your body and mind, and focusing your attention on positively reconnecting with the people you’re working with.

Pay attention: Attempt to detect as many details as possible about other people’s reaction to you and your ideas. You can’t influence others if you don’t pick up on the positive and negative signals they send by way of body language, verbal cues, tone of voice, and so forth. Listen to their concerns with a willingness to be changed and a willingness to see your idea develop beyond your original conception. Observe the interactions between you and those you’re working with; note what kinds of actions – or inactions – follow the group’s decision to proceed with your idea. The power of paying attention will guide you in your efforts to enhance relationships with managers and employees, and bring more of your ideas to the implementation stage.

Explore deeply. Use your excellent interviewing skills to dig around and discover what others need or want from you, and if they genuinely trust and respect you. If individual employees won’t share candidly with you because they’re reluctant to trust, take the pulse of the general population by running small focus groups on different topics, or by sending employees a quickly-completed, three-question e-mail survey. Ask yourself, “What’s the best and cheapest way to get information in our organization?” It could be as simple as buying a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop for a different employee each week and having an informal chat.

Find ways to connect. Make room for others to join you in developing your idea – and be ready and willing to turn it into our idea. Admit you don’t have all the answers and invite others to explore ways in which new HR policies, programs and products might be used in the workplace. When others see that you’re eager to hear their fears and concerns, to be influenced by what they have to say, and to blend your goals with theirs, their opposition will turn into support and everyone will win.

Other ways to connect with your colleagues: Read what they’re reading – national newspapers, business magazines, and industry publications – so you can really “get” what’s on their minds. Join in on their conversations and have in common a general business knowledge and language; attend senior management meetings and keep the human issues of the business in the forefront. Understand your company’s big picture, so your ideas complement the corporate vision and mission.

To connect with employees, join different groups or individuals for lunch (if you do it on a regular basis, it will begin to seem normal and acceptable); invite employees to brainstorming sessions for new programs you’re considering implementing; encourage people to e-mail you or visit your office to share their ideas, and so forth.

The key to bringing ideas to life is to understand something that’s already near and dear to your heart: People matter. Nurture relationships with managers and employees with the same energy and enthusiasm you bring to your ideas and you’re sure to be more effective. Finally, don’t be afraid of resistance; it’s actually a good thing. It means people care enough to engage with you and what you’re saying – and engagement is exactly what you need when you’re trying to turn opposition into support.

© 2009 Rick Maurer. Rick uses his Change without Migraine™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free resource for people interested in change in organizations.