Change without Migraines in HR

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Change without Migraines in HR

Just like the title says….


by Rick Maurer

A significant number of organizational changes are doomed to fail. Recent surveys reported the following success rates: reengineering efforts – 33%; mergers and acquisitions – 29%; quality improvement efforts – 50%; new software applications – 20%. (Beyond the Wall of Resistance)

These dismal statistics represent a tremendous cost to organizations in money, resources, and time. Failed change initiatives also take a human toll. Employees are left feeling discouraged, distrustful, and reluctant to participate in the next round of failures. According to a survey of Fortune 500 executives, resistance is the primary reason why changes fail in organizations.

“Change management” may not have been part of your job description, but is has become a critical skill. To help organizations beat these odds, HR departments are now being asked to play a more integral role in making change happen. HR professionals frequently find themselves in the unenviable position of bearing the bad news of downsizing, developing outplacement programs on a moment’s notice, and trying to help managers work effectively with survivors of the most recent job cuts.

Although they are called upon to play a more crucial role in instituting organizational change, HR departments face unique difficulties. Because others often view the department as a necessary evil, there is a constant need to justify the existence of HR. This situation creates several challenges for HR, including:

  1. The department runs the risk of losing to outsourcing.
  2. Even if the department remains intact, its failure to be seen as a unit that is critical to the organization’s strategic business goals means that their opinions and programs may not be given serious attention.
  3. HR professionals need to take a close look at themselves and assess what others are saying about them. They must try to determine why other departments resist HR initiatives.

So, while the HR department is apt to face resistance as it tries to implement organizational changes, they face additional obstacles that are perhaps more important – their own resistance to looking inward and the impact of others’ perceptions on their ability to get meaningful work done.

Assessing the Situation

The first step in moving beyond resistance is to figure out the type of opposition you are facing. This involves assessing what others think about you and your work. To do this, begin with yourself. Brainstorm what you know and what you believe other departments think about you. Compare this with what other HR professionals in your department think.

Next, solicit information from other functional areas – using any number of tactics. Ideas to consider include:

  • Distribute an anonymous survey that asks questions about people’s perceptions of HR, its programs, responsiveness and value to the organization.
  • Conduct focus groups to obtain more detailed information than from a survey. Make sure you use a skilled facilitator who will not get defensive.
  • Buy people coffee. You probably have good relationships with some individuals in each department. Invite them for coffee and ask for a candid assessment. Be sure to listen and explore. Do not defend or explain why HR does what it does. Your goal is to learn what they think – period.
  • Listen and observe. Yogi Berra once said, “You can learn a lot, just by watching.” Pay attention to what is said and not said. Notice trends. Are people calling HR less or more often? Are the types of things you are asked to do strategic, or are you the hand maiden of the powerful players? Are you listened to in meetings with other department? Does the vice president of HR have influence with the CEO?

What do these perceptions mean?

If the perceptions are positive, great! Just keep doing what you’re doing and forge ahead. If, however, there is a negative perception, it is likely that the opposition or resistance to HR falls into one of two categories: Level 1 or Level 2 resistance.

Level 1 is resistance to the change itself. There is no hidden agenda. People simply question or oppose the idea. Think of this as low-grade resistance that might surface for any number of reasons:

  • They don’t like the idea.
  • They don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish.
  • They don’t know why it is important to you.
  • They don’t know what impact the change will have on them. Will you save them time and money?
  • They’ve got their own ideas about where the organization should be.

Level 2 resistance is deeper than the specific change at hand. It indicates that there are additional forces at work. Others do not trust you. They think you are not credible. At level 2, resistance becomes a force actively opposing your idea and to move beyond it people need to be:

  • Actively involved: Resisters need to be deeply involved in the process. They need to feel they can influence what happens in their own lives.
  • Heard: When resistance is deep, people wish to say to you, “I need you to truly hear my concern. I want you to hear what I don’t have the words to say.”
  • Valued: In Level 2 people feel vulnerable. They feel as if their world may soon come crashing down. They need to know that those in charge care about them and will protect them.

Take Action

The actions you need to take to overcome opposition will depend on the level of resistance you are facing. If you are confronted with Level 1 resistance, consider developing a solid communications plan. People simply need to hear what you offer. Just because it’s Level 1 does not mean that resisters will automatically agree with you; people can have different points of view. But, Level 1 does indicate that all the issues are on the surface; you just need to address the differences of opinion. To do so, there are five important points that will help you to get your point across to others. (These come from the work of Everett Rogers. The Diffusion of Innovation.)

  • Relative advantage. People need to see how change is better than the status quo.
  • Compatibility. People must see the link to the old way of doing things.
  • Simplicity. As excited as you may be by the new idea, you must keep it simple.
  • Easy to test. People need a change to experiment with new things.
  • Observability. It’s easier to accept something new after you’ve seen it in action.

If you are facing Level 2 resistance, you must be prepared to dig a little deeper. It is counter-productive to look at resistance as a wall that must be destroyed. Traditional methods to defeat resistance, such as reason, manipulation and power, do not work; they may even make the gap between you and the resisters even bigger.

Sure, you have probably used at least one of these tactics when faced with resistance – everyone has. But, overpowering or destroying resistance implies that your way of doing things is right and others must be persuaded or forced to go along. Tension is created and resisters believe that for you to win, they must lose. Naturally, they fight back. So, while you might think these traditional battle tactics would destroy the wall, they actually reinforce it.

To move beyond the wall of resistance, don’t battle it; dig deeper and embrace it. Listen to those who oppose change and try to understand how they feel and why they feel that way. Then try to find common ground, incorporating their concerns.

The most successful strategies to move beyond resistance and build support for change have six principles in common; I call these principles the “touchstones.”

1. Build strong working relationships. Most resistance is linked directly to the quality of the working relationship: the better the relationship, the less resistance. HR professionals are busy; but you must take the time to create relationships that are strong and based on mutual respect and understanding.

  • When with members of other departments, speak their “language.” Talk about issues that are important to them.
  • HR should serve the organization. Make sure the other departments know that you understand what it takes for them to be successful.
  • Be available. Make it easy for others to communicate with you.
  • Be a consultant to them. Begin with listening to the needs of others and then develop programs that build upon these needs.

2. Maintain a clear focus. When resistance emerges and others attack your ideas, it’s easy to lose sight of your original goals. Be careful to keep your goal in mind while simultaneously paying attention to the concerns of those who have a stake in the outcome. If you only focus on your goal, you will miss mounting resistance. If you only concentrate on the opposition, you will never know when you have enough support to move ahead.

3. Embrace resistance. You cannot move beyond resistance unless you let down your guard and open yourself up to those opposing change. Embracing resistance encourages employees to talk about their concerns and why they feel that way. When you are open to learning more about another person’s view of the situation, you can find common ground and discover ways to transform the negative energy of resistance into positive support for change.

4. Listen with an open mind. People who fear they have something to lose are naturally reluctant to share their questions and concerns. By creating a climate of trust and openness, resisters will see your commitment to listening to them with an open mind and heart – and they will tell the truth. I have seen resistance melt simply because the person implementing the change was always honest and forthright with people.

5. Stay calm to stay engaged. It is difficult to open yourself up to a flood of criticism. That’s one reason why we may avoid those who resist us. They key is to stay calm, relaxed, and centered on the issue at hand. As people raise questions about the changes, listen attentively and draw them out. Do not attack or give in to them. Instead, use what you have learned to begin seeking common ground.

6. Join with the resistance. It is important to seek a neutral zone that attempts to include the interests of everyone. Asking three questions will help you do this:

  • What’s in it for me?
  • What’s in it for you?
  • What’s in it for us?

Listen for common fears and anxieties in the answers. Build on those similarities to find a solution that addresses the concerns of all parties. By doing so, you can transform opposition into support.

Putting it all together

HR departments have it particularly rough, especially in Canada. Not only do they face opposition to the changes that are trying to implement, they also face inherent resistance to their existence as a department. To be successful, and to thrive as an integral facet of a dynamic organization, you must help others overcome the feelings they have about the HR department. Only then can you begin to really make change happen.

© 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.