I have recently done some work for a non-governmental organisation – their strategy had changed (what was previously an organisation who themselves implemented projects within communities had now moved to a strategy of influencing partner organisations and government departments to implement projects). During the workshop, there was a sudden realisation that the requisite skills for this new strategy for the most part didn’t reside in their current leadership team. I could sense the unease, perhaps fear for some, as they realised that their current roles were now under review – certainly, if they stayed, they would not be doing the same tasks as before. For some, the giant leap of being able to fulfil the expectations of a new role was too daunting and “impossible”. Resistance set in – a few challenged the introduction of the new strategy; others escaped and found other things to do (fight or flight behavioural patterns).

Acceptance seems to be at the core of any transformational shift. Elizabeth Kebler-Ross (Five Stages of Loss) put emphasis on this fact through her work with the grief associated with death and dying. People have to get to the place of acceptance if they are going to move beyond their resistance and emotional pain. To accept, we need to be sensitised to the emotion that underlies our resistance. We have to recognise and acknowledge it. Denying the emotion, or pretending that it doesn’t exist, keeps us stuck in resistance.

Dean and Linda Anderson (Beyond Change Management) note that change managers, operating on autopilot, exacerbate stakeholder resistance with well-intentioned attempts to “overcome” it, which triggers the ego to dig in its heels even more: “Techniques to ‘overcome resistance’ are usually applied from the outside by the change manager and often, at best, quell it without resolving it. The manager’s ego judges the stakeholder resistance as bad, so their autopilot response is to attempt to put a boundary around it to contain it”. This clearly doesn’t work.

To assist resistant stakeholders get to a place of acceptance, leaders need to create a safe environment where employees can express their fears and air their emotional pain. When people can express their feelings and have their concerns fully heard without judgment, rebuttal or defensiveness, they feel understood and can let their feelings go. The Andersons note: “By being seen and accepted, received as a whole human being, their ego has nothing to fight against, no battle to wage to claim its identity. Holding the space for someone to express their emotional upset enables the upset to dissipate”. The leader’s emotional intelligence and listening skills are paramount here – the leader needs to realise that the leadership role is not to get those who are resisting to a place of commitment – this will happen of its own accord as resistance diminishes and they become more engaged in the change initiatives. Provide opportunity for participation.

Encouraging the transformation shift from resistance to commitment is a leadership skill – manipulation and other “techniques” are not helpful and rather tend to embed resistance within the organisation. Listening appropriately to fears and other emotional responses to impending change is the best environment that leaders can create for employees to debrief their feelings without fear.

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