Runners & Tunnelers – A Guide to Dealing with Change Resistance

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Jeff Cole

The following is a true story – but my relative’s names were changed to protect the innocent…. 

One day several decades ago, an older married couple was shopping in a fancy upscale department store. While the husband was looking at something, the wife went by a display of table lamps, bumped one and it fell over and broke. She promptly fast-walked away at Olympic speed, and legend has it was muttering aloud – “I wonder who broke that lamp?”. The husband who saw this went toward the broken lamp where he stayed until the manager came to see what the commotion was. He then pointed out to the manager how his haphazard display made it easy for somebody to walk by and easily knock over the lamps. Cute tale, but so what?

Acceptance of process change is a lot like this. Some people will high-tail it away from your change while others will run toward it. If people resist, some will silently resist the change and others will proactively approach you and be vocal in their resistance. We stand a better chance at success if we recognize this have a way to deal with each scenario.

“Looks like we have a runner”

History can be important. Are you the 14th person to announce a process change to your audience (and the prior 13 crashed and burned)? If so, they may run away with reason. Workers have seen guys like you come and go over the years and maybe learned that if they stay in the shadows, your effort will self-destruct and they won’t have to do anything.

Rx: If you are new, understand the history of process change in your organization. If employees are new – what has their past experience been? Let that information inform your approach. Let your audience know how this change (legitimately) is different from what they experienced before. If you find healthy ways such that following the new process is less painful than running from it – people will often naturally gravitate toward it. If you have no history on the organization, assume that approximately one-third of your audience may be runners and plan accordingly.

“Captain, the resistance has gone underground”

 Large process changes often experience resistance. We may never eliminate it but we can manage it if we know about it. That person in your face telling you how your change is awful is actually doing you a favor. You know exactly where they stand. The one to watch out for is the guy who smiles, shakes your hand, says “what a great idea – can’t wait to implement it” and then goes off and does things the old way. His resistance has tunneled underground.

Rx: Counterintuitive though it may be, make it safe for people to overtly complain about your process change (prior to rollout). Get them involved in the design or a discussion of how the new process may be open to failure. Who knows? There may possibly be some collateral damage your change will generate that wasn’t on your radar or they come up with a better way to do things. Do make sure they are working off educated and informed opinions - not basing their reactions on hearsay or rumors. Work to make them feel listened to and involved. Once you understand how many people are resisting and the severity and nature of that resistance, your countermeasure strategies will be much more successful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go vocally resist a change my wife seems to be making to my weekend schedule. Happy change!