Early in my career, I took over a volunteer-driven organization that had been led by the same man for 27 years. I respected the previous leader and admired a lot of the things he did.
But I knew that I was a different person and needed to do some things my own way. I recognized that the organization had become stuck on a plateau and realized that freeing it—as the new guy—would not be an easy task.
I began to implement changes immediately. But not everyone was on board. After about three months, a volunteer leader named Chuck pulled me aside and said, “John, you changed everything. Everything.” He was pretty upset.
Most of us are “Chucks” when it comes to change: resistant, nervous… sometimes even a little angry. Even though the organization was experiencing positive growth, Chuck didn’t like the new way of doing business.
Too many Chucks make for a very disgruntled workplace.
As the leader, I had to figure out how to build a bridge to connect with Chuck and others like him. I needed to win their trust. So I scheduled a monthly gathering of the entire organization, promising to answer any questions thrown at me.
I’ll never forget that first meeting—an assembly of hundreds of uncomfortable people (including me!). I perched on a stool and took questions for hours. I didn’t always give people the answers they wanted to hear, but I was honest. I held this meeting month after month until the number of people attending dwindled from hundreds of Chucks to a couple of dozen.
Here’s what I learned: No matter your title, people will not follow you if they don’t trust you. Whether you are just taking over a team or working to implement large-scale change within one, you are guaranteed to run into resistance if you haven’t taken time to establish a foundation with the people you oversee before turning their worlds upside down.
Here are 10 ways to break down resistance and keep the herd generally moving in the right direction:
1. Start with compassion. No matter the circumstances, change is scary, and you represent that terrifying unknown. Meet people where they are. If they oppose you or your initiatives, offer empathy rather than animosity. Their reactions aren’t personal; they are just responding to an uninvited shake-up.
2. Connect first. It’ll be tempting to ask people to “get over it” and go straight to work. Resist that impulse! No doubt you are anxious to see quick results (and your job may hinge on it), but you’re better off starting slow and finding common ground. Get to know the people on your team. Ask them about their families, their backgrounds and their concerns. Find opportunities for one-on-one interactions. These moments of connection are the most important ones in your day. If you don’t connect, you can forget about helping people move forward.
3. Influence the influencers. Pay attention to group dynamics. Who are the influencers? These people hold the keys to the kingdom. Identify them and then focus your energy on getting to know them—quickly! If you’re a new leader, these established team members no doubt have more influence than you. Enlist their help. A few vocal supporters can be priceless.
4. Address resistance. Don’t pretend resistance will go away on its own. Draw it into the open. Invite the voices of discontent to the table. Put your pride aside and listen. Remember, it isn’t personal. You can’t deal with resistance until you understand it, and you won’t earn buy-in until you understand people’s reservations and the reasons behind them.
5. Communicate your values. It’s tempting to withdraw when you encounter conflict, but you have to do the opposite. You’ve got to overcommunicate. Look for ways to demonstrate your values as you explain your vision. You want to reassure people that your principles are positive and show where your values align with theirs. The key is to be steady, positive and consistent.
6. Learn from other leaders. How do others create a turnaround and overcome opposition? How do they initiate a cultural change? Cast a wide net and read about leaders outside your industry. When it comes to great leadership, there’s nothing wrong with stealing tricks from those who have gone before you.
7. Go forward boldly. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. (Just be sure to fix them faster than you make them!) Stop and assess yourself, your process and your progress often, and course-correct as needed. Mistakes are inevitable. Keep it moving.
8. Prioritize and act. In his book The ONE Thing, Gary Keller, chairman of Keller Williams Realty, offers a simple leadership formula that will yield extraordinary results: Find the one thing you can do that will make other things easier or even unnecessary. Identify that thing and prioritize it. The rest will fall into place.
9. Create wins for the organization. Never underestimate the power of early victories. They give people confidence to keep pushing forward, even though turning the ship is hard. Achieving an early win builds team momentum. It gives you credibility. It motivates people and silences the critics.
10. Equip leaders. If you want to sustain change and start building momentum, you must start developing and equipping the leaders. It is a slow and difficult process, but it creates lasting change. Look for your stars and pour on the support.
Whenever you step into a new leadership role, you are living on borrowed time. All eyes are on you, and not everyone watching is on your side. This is your chance to prove yourself worthy of your leadership position. Take this time to develop relationships and establish trust with all of the Chucks.
Before long, their resistance will give way to momentum.