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Don’t Waste Your Time on the Resistors

Lucy Adams on April 26, 2021

Don’t Waste Your Time on the Resistors


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I had a colleague once – a fellow board member – who was sort of my nemesis. Whenever I wanted to introduce any changes to the way we did HR – they were the biggest resistor. Unfortunately, they also wielded a lot of power in the organisation. So, my strategy was always to try and win them over. This involved:

  • engaging them from the outset so they would feel ‘bought-in’,
  • listening to them and consulting their views more than any other member of the Exec team
  • delaying, diluting, or altering the changes I wanted to try
  • And often just giving up!

With the benefit of hindsight, I really wished I had gone about this in a different way. Because I have realised that they were never going to change – not because the proposals were wrong – but because they were terrified of anything that might alter the status quo.

There are lots of things I wished I’d done differently as an HR Director, but this stands out above all the others. I dearly wish I had not wasted so much of my time and energy (and of my team) on the biggest resistors.

The HR teams we see who are making fantastic and innovative changes get this instinctively. They don’t worry too much about the ones who don’t want to change – and instead, focus on the curious and the open – the ones who, may not be the greatest leaders in the world, but who get that things probably need to change and are up for exploring something new. They get their ideas going with these guys first – and think about rolling out more widely once they have go this initial group on board.

If HR were product manufacturers – that’s exactly what we’d be doing right? We would find our so-called ‘early adopters’ – and we would launch with them. We’d iron out the initial flaws and bugs with people who are happy to try out the ‘beta’ version. We’d get testimonials about how great the product is. And we would use this to market our new product to others who, by this stage, might want to be included in something that’s getting plenty of positive attention.

We’ve used this strategy with clients who wanted to launch a new HR approach – say, for performance management. Rather than focusing on the biggest resistors and delaying everything until they are happy to go with it. We’ve found pockets of initial interest amongst some managers who are fed up with the old-fashioned way of doing appraisals and who are open to trying something new. We’ve then worked on developing the new design – co-creating it with them – and piloting a couple of new ideas.

We’ve got plenty of feedback, built up testimonials and encouraged the early adopters to influence their peers to give it a go. It also helps if your CEO shows an interest and offers some praise or recognition for the innovation. We find that this combination often results in other leaders wanting to be included in the next phase. Remember – do not be tempted to try and persuade the biggest resistors – even at this stage! The key is to ignore them – and get to a place where they are perhaps more isolated in their negativity. I’ve even tried telling them that they can’t be included because they aren’t ready to work in these new ways – a slightly more radical approach but it can work wonders!

Now one of the challenges we often get is – ‘but what about the poor employees who work for these leaders who refuse to change? Don’t we in HR have a responsibility to look out for them? If we leave out the resistors then their team members will have a much poorer experience?’ And of course this is probably true. But I think we have to ask ourselves whether forcing leaders who don’t want to change to adopt something new is going to result in a positive experience either? We know that organisations have perpetually promoted leaders who haven’t really been interested in people leadership but who have been the best technically or who wanted the increased status. Trying to prop them up with processes that make them do the people stuff – often badly – isn’t making them better at it. I think that focusing on the ones who do want to do it better – and enlisting their help to encourage the neutrals to join in – is a more effective way of improving the experience for our people.

So to sum up:

When you’re thinking about your strategy for making change:

  • Don’t worry too much about the resistors
  • Focus on the curious and frustrated
  • Identify early adopters and use them to influence the others

It’s more effective and much less exhausting!

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