Strategies for Overcoming Resistance to Change in the C-Suite

/ Christine Andrukonis

Resistance is a common roadblock during strategy, operating model, technology and culture change. However, resistance to this change, especially from the C-suite, carries a high cost. It prevents programs from achieving intended outcomes and realizing the desired ROI. As change programs drag on, stakeholders lose excitement and the priorities of change managers shift to other projects, leaving teams with a sea of unmet objectives, overrun budgets, past-due deadlines and diluted outcomes.

What holds executives back in the face of what should be an exciting transformational period is no mystery. Resistance to change is borne out of fear. It might be the fear of losing something – be it credibility or reputation – or fear of looking foolish or a fear of failing. This basic human emotion can impact even the most seasoned executive at the biggest Fortune 500 company.

The good news is that several common symptoms of this problem tend to arise. If you can become adept at identifying these symptoms and helping others do the same, you can more easily overcome resistance to change and get your teams unstuck.

Change resistance indicators

The first step to moving forward is to recognize early on, when this resistance to change is happening. There are four indicators that resistance may be plaguing your change process:

1. Analysis paralysis. Data gathering and analysis is usually the first step in a big change process. But if you are following up your data gathering with more benchmarking, more stakeholder surveys, more design sessions, more analysis, as if there will be a new key insight that might change everything, it’s time to pause. Do you actually need more data or is there something else standing in your way of moving forward?

2. Shifting timelines. If the timeline for implementation keeps moving back – even for what seems to be good reasons – there may be an underlying fear of an imperfect project, a tough decision, customer disruption or the potential for a mistake or failure getting in your way.

3. Reinventing the wheel. Are you following up workshops or steering committee meetings with other meetings, follow-up discussions or deeper-dive workshops? There’s only so many times you can rehash information if the first attempts didn’t achieve a clear solution. Now is the time to ask if you’re avoiding a decision that needs to be made.

4. Accountability avoidance: Do you find yourself with a number of tasks that have no clear owner, or multiple owners, making it hard for anyone to feel excited and empowered to navigate the path forward? We like to say that if everybody is owning the change, then nobody is owning it. This lack of accountability allows executives to stay connected to the change and plays to interests in ensuring everyone is included. But to make progress, someone at some point needs to be accountable for taking the steering wheel and truly driving the ship forward.

When any of these indicators arise, it’s time to stop and identify the source of resistance, so you can dig into the level of risk you are willing to accept by continuing to push off this change – or tackle the resistance to change so you can get teams unstuck and deliver the momentum you’ve all been working so hard to achieve.

5 steps to drive change forward

Once you’ve identified the issues noted above, there are five steps that can help overcome resistance to change.

1. Name it. When you see evidence of these indicators happening, name it to the people that you’re working with or to the executive C-suite. This is often the hardest step.

Try this: “I noticed that we keep saying we need more data and I am wondering if perhaps there’s something else getting in our way. Could we potentially be resisting the change that we’re trying to implement? What do you think?”

2. Identify the impact. If you can’t move forward, you can’t achieve the rewarding outcomes that drove you to begin this change. But if you can quantify this, that’s even better and more compelling to those around you.

Try this: “My concern is that getting more data isn’t going to help us get closer to what we’re trying to accomplish at this point. We need to understand what we’re afraid of and address that so that we can move forward in the way we want. And we need to come to terms with the fact that there will always be a level of uncertainty in these types of circumstances. What’s greater at this point: the risk of moving forward or the risk of staying where we are right now?”

3. Ask questions: Uncovering the fears holding back progress will be critical to building the trust executives need in their change management team and in what they’re trying to do.

Try this: “Do you feel the same way? What do you think we are afraid of? What are we hopeful for? What do we need to address in order to move forward?”

4. Work together to problem solve it. Often this requires that teams come to a level of acceptance to make progress rather than achieve perfection.

Try this: “If this is what we’re afraid of [or this is the big problem that we’re seeing], what creative ideas do we have to solve it? What would it take for us to move forward and move past this moment where we’re getting stuck?”

5. Identify clear next steps.

Try this: “I’m hearing we can do XYZ, and I propose that we move forward by doing so.”

Keep moving forward

To keep moving forward, it is important to build into your change management or digital transformation process a continual check on progress. Keep asking: Are we stuck? Why are we stuck? How do we get unstuck? Taking this approach provides clear opportunities to pause and reflect early to minimize risk.

Admittedly, this is not an easy process. It takes courage to ask these tough questions and hold yourself and your team accountable for facing these fears. Hopefully, it also provides a sense of comfort to know that if you are experiencing this resistance, the chances are good that at least one if not many of your colleagues are going through the same thing. By giving voice to these thoughts voice and exploring these issues with your colleagues, you may find you can unlock deeper problem-solving capabilities and build greater trust in the process as you move forward.

Because this process is hard, many organizations find that a third-party change management consultant can also play a key role in helping keep resistance to change in check. If you’re ready to drive your change project forward, Notion Consulting can help. Contact us today.