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Tapping into the positive side of change resistance

Tapping into the positive side of change resistance

If you want to be a leader in and out of your organisation, then you have to address the change resistance working against the success of the IT you are responsible for.

Resistance to change is often based on emotional tension between conflicting commitments and beliefs — not on rational arguments.

Bard Papegaaj, Gartner

Change initiatives often fail for no clear reason. As a CIO, you can’t afford for this to happen, especially given IT brings many changes to an organisation: when it’s introduced, as it evolves, and even when it gets replaced or decommissioned.

To reap the benefits of IT, an organisation needs to adjust its operational parameters: processes, information flow and control mechanisms. All these changes directly and indirectly impact the way people work.

Trying to change the way people work can be difficult. In fact, resistance to change is often given as a major cause of the failure rate of organisational change initiatives.

It’s natural to conclude that people simply don’t like to change, and that’s the reason they resist it. Looking closer shows that things are not that simple. Resistance to change is often based on emotional tension between conflicting commitments and beliefs — not on rational arguments.

If you want to be a leader in and out of your organisation, then you have to address the change resistance working against the success of the IT you are responsible for.

It’s important to understand the sources of resistance to be able to turn it around.

Following are four best practices to guide you:

1) Understand the sources of resistance

When presented with arguments in favour of a change program, most people will see the need for change. Yet, even when the vast majority of people involved in a change initiative say they support it and are committed to it, very often the changes don't happen, or happen slowly and haphazardly.

The cause of this apparent contradiction is a discrepancy between what people say and believe they agree with on a rational and intellectual level, and what they feel and believe at a deeper, emotional level. These subconscious motivators act as a counterforce that prevents them from actually contributing to the change, or that even compels them to sabotage it. It’s important to understand the sources of resistance to be able to turn it around.

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2) Monitor your environment for the languages of internal conflict

When most people feel discomfort, anxiety or fear, instead of examining and addressing the source of the contradictions, most people externalise the tension between their conscious and subconscious drivers by finding flaws, faults and obstacles in their environment.

Quite a few people habitually ignore such emotions to the point they don't even feel them anymore, but that doesn't stop those emotions from influencing those people's behaviour. Monitor your environment for the languages of internal conflict to be able to address them.

3) Practice using positive, explorative languages

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Systematically helping people change the language they use to speak about things that concern, frighten or frustrate them can turn those emotional obstacles into a much more positive energy. People use these negative languages because they care. By tapping into that care and harnessing it in positive, constructive conversations, that same energy can be used as a force for change, engagement and constructive commitment.

4) Help people overcome their own resistance

As a leader, make sure to listen to the negative languages you hear around you and engage with them to explore the concerns, fears, and assumptions that lie underneath. Addressing those concerns instead of attacking the surface-level grievances can help you leverage people's internal commitments and beliefs to make them change agents, rather than change obstacles.

Before you try and tackle the change resistance working against the success of your IT organisation, a necessary first step for any change leader is to understand and overcome your own resistance to change. Embody the changes you aim for to be able to inspire and lead your people.

Bard Papegaaij is a research director in Gartner's Office of the CIO group. He provides IT advice and guidance to help CIOs and IT leaders improve their personal and professional success in delivering exceptional business results, while building their personal, interpersonal and leadership skills and capabilities. Papegaaij will be speaking on ‘Languages of Change: How to Tap Into the Positive Side of Change Resistance’ and other topics at the Gartner Symposium/ITxp0 2016 on the Gold Coast, Australia, 24-27 October.

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