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How to Get Your Team to Accept Change

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do I get my team to accept change? The changes I am trying to implement ensure we stay compliant. We went over these changes to processes well in advance, yet several of my team members are now resistant, passive-aggressive, and have ignored the changes. One person is especially difficult. She expressed her dislike for me and my personality in a one-on-one meeting. When I asked her if she can at least be professional, she shrugged her shoulders. She has teamed up with another teammate and together they make it very challenging.


Dear Stymied,

Your paragraph is rich with mystery. Many of the concerns you express could have a wide variety of causes, so rather than serve you a meal of advice I’m going to give you a buffet. I hope you’ll find something nourishing.

Don’t Neglect the Weak Signal

You describe one “especially difficult” person. You report that she expressed dislike for you and your personality. While your characterization of her may be correct, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in you provoking resistance and that she is the one person opening up about it.

In today’s workplace few people give each other honest feedback. It may be that you are coming across as obstinate, thin-skinned, coercive, self-righteous, judgmental, disorganized or otherwise displaying some other weakness. Because few people will point out your flaws directly, it’s wise to attend to the “weak signals” you receive in unexpected moments or, frankly, from others who are brusque enough to confront you.

One of the most disarming and useful things you could do is ask her for a meeting. Let her know you’re concerned you might have a weakness that’s undermining your ability to lead change and that you would be grateful if she would elaborate on what she said earlier. Then go, ask, and do nothing other than take notes and ask for clarification. When she is finished, don’t agree, don’t disagree, just commit to give some thought to her input and respond later about what you want to work on.

I find that there is almost always a kernel of truth in others’ feedback to me. If I reject their assertions because they’re overstated or abrasive, I miss the benefit of gleaning some truth in the weak signal.

It’s Better to Remove Resistance than to Add Force

The legendary sociologist Kurt Lewin described the natural human tendency to fight resistance with more resistance. If someone pushes, we reflexively push back. If someone raises their voice, we rise to meet them. If someone tells us we’re wrong, we point out how we’re right.

Lewin suggested that this is like driving with one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator. If you’re encountering resistance to change, the first step is to try to understand it, not oppose it. And the best way to understand it is to…

Connect with Opinion Leaders

Everett Rogers did one of the most important studies ever of the social physics of change. And one thing he found is you can accelerate change by involving opinion leaders.

Few people adopt new behaviors because they “make sense.” Most only change after they see those they respect change first. We use opinion leaders in our lives as curators of truth. Rather than trust our own analysis of hard data, we look to those we think are wise. If they do it, we’ll do it.

As a would-be change leader, you’d be wise to identify the people who are most respected in your organization and invite them to have a candid conversation with you. Let them know you’ll share the reasoning behind the proposed changes, but ask them as well to come prepared to give unflinching feedback about why they won’t work.

At the end of the day, change won’t flow until these people are on board. So spend whatever time it takes to earn their trust and address their concerns, and then solicit their help. Have them be part of key presentations, involve them in experiences that will allow them to feel the problem you’re trying to solve, and involve them in experiences using the new changes so they can personally attest to others that they work.

Ability Issues are Often Dressed Up as Motivation Problems

Finally, don’t fall into the “fundamental attribution error” trap. Often when others disagree with us, we attribute their disagreement to malevolent intentions. We think they are lazy, stupid, selfish or dishonest. If you’ve been feeling angry or irritated about the opposition you’re seeing, it’s likely you’re nursing a story like this about your colleagues. Long experience has shown me that what often looks like a motivation problem is often an ability issue. People oppose leaders because they feel uncomfortable, incompetent, uninformed or unprepared. What they need is information, education, and tutoring, not another motivational speech.

I once worked with a hospital that was struggling to get doctors to use a new electronic medical records system that could potentially change lives. Frustrated leaders were ready to compel the doctors to get on board. They considered threatening them with loss of privileges, shaming them in front of colleagues, and other coercive methods. As things escalated, a wise leader sat down with a few doctors who were opinion leaders and asked for feedback. She discovered it wasn’t so much that doctors disagreed with the need for the new system, but that they struggled with scheduling, felt unprepared to use it, and didn’t understand the tip sheets they had been given.

It wasn’t a motivation problem, it was an ability problem. She then held a special mentoring session for the opinion leaders at a time convenient to them.

On the day the software went live, she asked the opinion leaders to wear purple T-shirts that indicated they could help any doctor with their first experience. And she arranged coverage for other doctors so they could attend trainings themselves. In short, she addressed the ability problems. Within two weeks, 95% of the doctors were ready to roll.

I hope something in this buffet is useful to you. And I wish you the best as you grow as a leader and influence others for good.


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5 thoughts on “How to Get Your Team to Accept Change”

  1. Alysia Treece

    This was a really good article! Thank you for sharing

  2. Ashley A. Wheeler

    Boy was this a GREAT post and “buffet” of ideas! Thank you Joseph! Always a fan. Ashley in Sweet Home Alabama

  3. Benjamin Ram

    As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts and guidance – I find they well informed and helpful.

    In this case, though, I did find it a bit abrupt to absorb the messaging and I feel it would have been even more powerful if you framed the beginning differently.

    I understand how you used the framing “could have a wide variety of causes…” and then proceeded to give a wide range of causes and approaches.
    The piece that I found missing was something along the lines of ‘the first step would be to dig a bit deeper to understand where the push back and attitude may be coming from’ and ‘start by thinking about any of the signals you may have received from the various meetings, conversations, etc to help you determine which of the below might most help you’. Something like that I feel would add a smoother intro and encourage the reader to do a reflection step before just grabbing a cause and trying one of the approaches.


  4. Peter Clark

    Excellent piece, Joseph. Nice use of the ideas from Influencer / Change Anything. Helpful mentions of research.

  5. ashlie laidlaw

    I really liked this article a lot, I could relate and the ideas to fix issues are simple and easy to do.

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