Change is a deeply human phenomenon, activating deeply human responses that don’t always help to advance organizational goals relative to change. But given today’s business environment — in which it seems that constant and escalating change is the fuel behind much progress and results — leaders must quickly master their ability to understand and constructively respond to the range of responses that could inhibit success.
Any leader who’s been on the job for more than a day has seen evidence of some of the most frequent and noticeable employee responses to change:
- Open resistance, characterized by the obvious and verbalized messages that let you know clearly that someone is not supportive. As frustrating as open resistance can be, the good news in these situations is that there are no surprises. You know where others are coming from.
- Quiet resistance, which may look like a smile to your face but undermining behavior behind your back. This dangerous form of resistance requires heightened cue sensitivity and benefits from solid trusting relationships with others.
- Skepticism about you, your real goals and objectives. The benefit of this response is that the questions and push-back provide a platform for educating, influencing, and swaying opinion.
But as challenging as these employee responses are, they don’t represent the greatest threat to successfully implementing change. Instead of focusing exclusively on the apparent and usual suspects, leaders must put more attention toward these invisible but powerful impediments to change:
- Apathy, which is evidenced by someone who simply doesn’t care or can’t find the time to care. It’s not resistance; it’s just that what you’re saying might not resonate powerfully enough to break through the barrage of other priorities and information.
- Placation, which is apathy packaged politically and in a more palatable way. Someone who’s placating will appear to be on board and going along with the program — as long as you’re there. But in your absence, inaction creeps in and nothing happens.
Apathy and placation are likely to kill your change effort more quickly than the louder and more obvious of their change-response cousins — but not for leaders who practice three key strategies.
- Understand the relationship between apathy and anxiety. Business today is a high-stakes and highly stressful environment. People operate under constant and unprecedented pressure. Anxiety reigns and one of its most common symptoms is apathy. Information overload, decision fatigue, and daily life offer more input than any one person can care about. Survival means being selective. Appreciating this dynamic and empathizing with others builds relationships, trust and a sense of understanding.
- Find and fuel the passion. Breaking through the inertia of apathy is easier when you can tie your change to something that matters deeply to others. Getting to know the whole person and what makes him or her tick goes even deeper than identifying common interest – and can be a tool for breaking the logjam that results from individual or group apathy.
- Make it easy. Just like you, your employees have more to-dos than can be accomplished in a given day. Even if the soul is willing, the body (and the clock) just might not conspire toward action. As a result, it’s critical to provide the step-by-step support required to help others implement the change. This might involve providing tools or being a resource yourself to help get things done. Try breaking down actions that might seem overwhelming into smaller sub-steps and shorter time frames. Keep in mind that, given competition for time and brain-share, if it’s too hard, the apathetic or placating employee just won’t get around to doing it.
In business, survival frequently comes down to being able to change. And there are considerable forces that consistently work against such change. Address the obvious resistance, but make sure to look beyond what the naked eye can see. Because, the subtle, invisible forces of apathy and placation just might be the most powerful barriers to breaking the status quo.
Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.
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