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How to Manage Someone Resistant to Change

Dear Justin,

How can I get an employee I supervise who is resistant to change to become more flexible in the workplace? I have included him in discussions about workplace change and have asked him for ideas on how we can improve workflows to support our mission and goals, but he offers no ideas or suggestions. As a manager, there are times I need to implement change. When I present these changes to him, he always says they won’t work. This is very frustrating as a manager. What can I do?

Stuck with Someone Stuck in His Ways

Dear Stuck,

That sounds frustrating. Your predicament reminds me of something humorist David Sedaris said: “I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.” It sounds like this team member is at the top of YOUR list.

This is what makes leadership so tough, in my view. You could be the smartest strategist in the world, but if you don’t know how to influence people, it almost doesn’t matter. Or like my friend Joseph Grenny likes to say, “There is no strategy so brilliant that people can’t render it worthless.” Influencing people is more than half the job of leadership. But that’s what makes leadership so important. So, let me lend a little insight to your incredibly important job: influencing humans.

Have the right conversation. You need to talk to this person, but not about what you think. Don’t get sucked into a discussion about the most recent change you want him to implement. Instead have the larger conversation, which is about the pattern: “I’ve noticed a pattern that when I bring up a new idea or change, you either don’t say anything when invited to or you say it won’t work. But you don’t offer alternative suggestions. Can you help me understand how you see it?”

Diagnose before you prescribe. Don’t just assume you know why this person is so resistant. Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational person act the way they are acting?” Then, when you talk with them, ask questions that uncover the real reasons for their attitude and behavior. Is it a motivation issue (they aren’t interested, they don’t like the change, they feel incentivized to do something else) or an ability issue (they lack skills, social support, or tools and resources)? It’s rare that someone is resistant for the “fun of it.” There’s likely some reason, they just haven’t told you.

Find the right reasons. Don’t ask this person to adopt the changes for reasons that motivate YOU. The truth is this: everyone is motivated. Your job is not to create motivation. Your job is to connect the new behavior with something he finds motivating. Help him see how the change benefits him and how it can help him achieve what he cares about. Motivation sticks when it’s our own. So, make connections, don’t motivate. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t know what motivates your team member, then you have some homework to do. Get to know your people better, and insight will flow.

All the best,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

4 thoughts on “How to Manage Someone Resistant to Change”

  1. Jason F.

    Hey Justin, great tip.

    To expand a bit on your last sentence; relationships are one of the most important factors of work and the overall productivity and success of an individual or a team. After all, companies and teams cannot operate without people, it’s the people that make or break its success. Sometimes leaders get stuck in a mindset of work is strictly for work and being productive, making a product, or providing a service. What we can sometimes overlook is people need to be supported and valued mentally and emotionally.

    Now, I’m not suggesting being best friends with everyone at work, nor does every individual have the same needs. I’m saying there is value in getting to know people on a personal level – getting to know their family life, their kids, their hobbies, and what brings them joy at and outside of work. Learn to get to know their life story a little bit at a time – and without judgement; everyone has their own story and ways of being, accept it for what it is. A tree (relationship) starts by planting a seed and does not mature overnight or just because you water it periodically. It takes time and care to ensure its long-term development. And sometimes weather can break branches, which means more work (and a crucial conversation) is required to ensure the tree continues to thrive.

    All-too-often a manager simply asks ‘how are you doing?’, employee responds with an artificial ‘I’m good’ with qualifier, and the manager says ‘that’s good, glad to hear you’re doing well’ and moves on to the work discussion. This is not engagement, and while this surface-level intro is appropriate on occasion, this is just an ice-breaker into a conversation. It’s important to make time periodically to ask specific and directed questions about pieces of other’s life; their kids, dog, hobby, etc. We all want to share what’s going on in life – good or bad, we just have to be prompted in the right way and feel comfortable with whom we are sharing our story – it’s your job to build that comfortable environment.

  2. Titus

    Why did you choose to use a white male, with a sus haircut and big glasses with his fingers in his ears for the article’s link picture? It is on which is supposed to be a place where people are not bullied or made fun of….kind of ironic. But yes, this article is woke garbage, actually its hot garbage.

    1. Monica

      Disappointing comment, it had nothing to do with article.

  3. sfia framework

    Effective change management helps identify and address sources of resistance, making it more likely that employees will embrace the changes.

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