5 Ways to Overcome Passive Resistance and Drive Organizational Transformation

“Organizations are made up of two things. People and everything else. Organizations don’t change, people do, or they don’t.”

Ever hear the story of the night in stormy waters where the tanker sees a light dead ahead and sends out a signal ‘Change course immediately 10 degrees South’. And gets an immediate reply ‘You change course 10 degrees North’.

The tanker captain, outraged at this reply sends a message ‘I am a 400,000 ton tanker. Change course 10 degrees South!’ Back comes a reply ‘I am a Lighthouse. Change course 10 degrees North!’

Market winds, competitive waters and microclimates within companies, make transformation inevitable in an organizations journey. We are in the world of a connected customer revolution (Vala Afshar) where the customer is interfacing with the brand every day. Leaders must adapt their organizations to maintain excellent performance in the face of intensifying competitive pressures. Unfortunately, few can. Research shows that only a third of excellent companies stay that way in the long run and even fewer are successful at executing change.

Feet stuck in tar

Transforming an organization can be an enormous undertaking and requires counter-intuitive thinking about issues. It is as much about the hard stuff and the soft stuff. And often the soft stuff is the hard stuff (Dr. Michael Hammer).

Leaders tasked with or initiating transformation often face passive resistance, a silent killer of transformation. This form of resistance can be overwhelming and often requires reshaping the mental architecture of the company and perhaps at times, the leader itself. The transformer themselves, often transform.

Here are 5 ways to overcome this silent killer of transformation inside an organization.

1. Vision & Positioning

If you are driving transformation, it’s likely that you are trying to move from being a conventional brand to a coveted brand. Coveted companies are rock stars in what they do and viewed as ‘the’ gold standard.

Vision and positioning exercise can sometimes take this route – ‘we know what we know so that’s our vision & positioning’, ‘we know best’, ‘we are smart’, ‘we do this and this is how we do it’, ‘we have large customers, you are a large prospect, so you should buy from us’, ‘are you dumb, didn’t you go to school, we are the best game in town’. The last one is not seen that often, but it exists.

The emotional connector, the ‘Why we do it’, takes a back seat or is never in the room, on the website, in the collateral. The ‘Why’ gives purpose to your brand, inspires your organization to do what you do and is the strongest vitamin, in your arsenal, to defeat passive resistance.

Are ice companies in the business of selling ice and delivering it? Or are they are in the business of keeping food fresh and safe for consumers.

The ‘Why’ of your brand is not just a B2C phenomenon, it applies to B2B as well. And in business today it’s not B2C nor B2B, its H2H as Bryan Kramer puts it – Human to Human . Find your ‘why’ and your customers ‘why’ and weave it into your positioning, in your communications – internal and external, and your performance targets.

Once you have it, stick with it. Altering your positioning and vision very often leads not just to confusion amongst the teams but also at times, lack of trust on what the organization stands for.
This one where the following Groucho Marx quote (altered) does not apply.

“These are (This is) my principles (positioning), and if you don’t like it, well….I have others.”

2. Operational Elasticity

Resistance and passive resistance builds up when a system is stretched to its limits. Overflowing inboxes, full schedules and mounting priorities have become a way of life for many professionals today. Businesses have become too accustomed to operating at full capacity without the resources needed.

“Operational elasticity is a mode where there is adequate time and the right resources to effectively accomplish a purpose and produce the intended, expected result”

Not having enough time and resources leads to task saturation and it can effect all your operations and create irreparable mistakes. With zero to minimal operational elasticity you often find teams having high stress levels, pushing back, starting to take more time off, basically shutting down. As operational elasticity decreases, performance decreases and executional errors increase. This silent killer is one of the key drivers of employee disengagement. There are multiple ways to address operational elasticity and more to come in my next article, but here is one approach.

Take your talent pipeline for example. How many unfilled positions exist within your organization? What is your time to hire ratio? Always, always keep building your own talent pipeline. The key is to practice the ‘fierce urgency of now’ in filling the roles you have open in the organization. Few leaders truly understand the negative business impact that result from slow hiring and slow hiring does not necessarily improve the quality of those you hire.

3. MicroEngage vs MicroManage

The transformation of an organizational fabric often succeeds if it reaches the roots.
Micromanaging a transformation seldom succeeds. These two quotes from Rebecca Knight’s recent article on How to Stop Micromanaging Your Team, say it well

“Micromanaging dents your team’s morale by establishing a tone of mistrust–and it limits your team’s capacity to grow,” Muriel Maignan Wilkins, coauthor of Own the Room and managing partner of Paravis Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm.

“If your mind is filled with the micro-level details of a number of jobs, there’s no room for big picture thoughts” says adds Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics

With no room for big picture thoughts, the bounder (micromanager) often becomes bounded. Often you hear leaders in meetings will say “I will take it on, I will do it” or “It’s just faster and will save time if I do it myself”. Sometimes Atlas Shrugs and the world falls down.

As a leader consider spending time engaging at the root levels of the organization instead. This also gets you closer to the source of information. Spread the vision, town halls, brown bag lunches, all hands, are great ways of doing this. Galvanize your executive team around the vision so that they can push it within their organizations. The vision and positioning should ultimately drive outcomes vs. waiting for something to come from CentCom.

There may be a few failures as your team learns to step up, but ultimately they will perform much, much better with greater accountability and less interference.

Change is powerful, and disruptive transformation is the change that builds and empowers.

4. Empathy

Empathy is the key to real transformation though often seen as a soft and frilly add-on rather than a core component of your DNA. There is nothing soft about it and done right empathy can and should be embedded into the entire organization. Humbleness, smarts and desire to win are a strong combination. Leaders just don’t need to see and hear activity around them, they also should relate to the people they serve.

We have between 5 and 10 seconds to catch someone’s attention before they turn away combined with the fact that people are unlocking their devices approximately 9 times every hour. Be present in every interaction and conversation. It means setting aside the noise, chatter and any other distraction that takes you away from the moment

Genuine curiosity goes a long way. Understand what motivates your team members, what do they struggle with and what it is like to struggle with that? Listen, get curious, and show empathy.

5. Over Communicate

Consistent internal communication, done often, is one of the strongest antidotes to passive resistance. Just as great care is invested in crafting the messages and value propositions for external consumption, organizations need to spend equal care to craft a different but complementary set of messages internally to their employees. Too often this important step is short changed and even overlooked. Working with the CMO and HR team to develop and implement a thorough internal communication plan is vitally important.

Emails, online forums, single tool for company chats are all good approaches. But nothing beats communication through action. For example, communication through action is about staying consistent through investments in a particular product, or filling open hire positions that contribute to that product. Actions inconsistent to the vision, can often plant seeds of passive resistance.

Gamification aspects play a huge role in internal communications. As an example, I launched an internal Rockstar contest in a large organization to proliferate our messaging across the company. Everyone listened to the positioning and then recorded it in their own words and the top three were selected and given interesting rewards. Leaderboards showed how each department was doing in terms of number of team members recording our positioning. Not only did employees learn and internalize our positioning, we ignited powerful, constructive dialogue amongst various departments about steps we should take to live up to that positioning.

Transformation is often complex and disruptive transformation is the change that builds and empowers. Often Root causes for passive resistance stem from unclear accountability, insufficient access to information, absence of motivators.

Each of these five steps above are worthy of far more discussion and debate and I welcome your thoughts. Your corporate culture is your brand. And the ability to help people embrace change is crucial, to your success as a leader.

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