Managing Change: Dealing with the difficult people

Resistance is a corollary of managing change. The outward manifestation of this resistance is people who are difficult to work with. The impact is not confined to the people displaying the characteristics of resistance, as other people will observe and follow the behaviours if they are not controlled.

Generally, people who resist change and create difficulties for the implementation of the change project fall into one of two categories:

  • Dominant/opinionated people
  • Passive, including passive aggressive, people.

It is important in any change management strategy to educate project members and associated stakeholders in how to cope with – and hopefully harness – the energy of both of these categories of resistant people. Here are a few strategies and tactics to positively manage resistant people.

Dominant/opinionated people

Dominant or opinionated people are often craving attention. There are two options open:

  • Starve them of attention
  • Feed the attention.

If you are in a position of power, then the option of starving them of attention might work. You can work to isolate them, limiting their interactions and their opportunity to get the attention they need.

There are six types of power available to us, and only some of them will work as a base to starve people of attention. The six types of power are:

  1. Reward

The individual believes they will get a reward for doing what they do. The reward may include, but is not limited to; money, time off or praise.

  1. Coercive

The individual can be intimidated into doing what others desire. The intimidation usually comes from a perception of a negative outcome of not doing what others desire. The negative outcomes may include, but are not limited to; demotion, dismissal, embarrassment or exclusion from a group.

  1. Legitimate

The individual believes that the person asking them to do something has a right to do so. This is most often to do with positions of authority in an organisation, albeit not always in a direct line.

  1. Referent

The individual refers their power to another person because of some attraction to the other person. Charismatic leaders exert referent power.

  1. Expert

The individual believes that the other person has so much expertise relative to their own, that they believe everything told to them.

  1. Information

The individual believes that the other person has information they do not have i.e. “knowledge is power”.

If you feel that your power is limited to sources such as reward, information and referent, then it makes sense not to attempt to starve them of attention, but to feed their attention instead, in a manner which you control.

Principles to apply to control the impact of their personality on your change project, whilst feeding their need for attention, include:

  • Ask for their opinion about the change or elements of change. Ask for their help.
  • Ask for their opinion as early as possible.
  • Talk to them, in preference to sending emails.
  • Ask for alternatives that might work from their experience, if they are negative towards your definition of the problem or possible solutions.
  • Reference them in communication as having assisted you in the analysis or problem identification or solution finding or planning or… Just make sure you tie their name to the project as it gets planned and implemented. Make them an owner and a defender of the project.
  • Ask their thoughts in meetings. Pick out a good point or turn a negative point into a good case of risk identification. Use their name often and early.

Passive people

Passive people are difficult, because whilst they appear to agree to things easily, they rarely carry through with their promised actions, procrastinating over minor decisions. Passive aggressive people agree to actions without ever having an intention to do so and display their aggressiveness to the change behind a veneer of agreeability.

Strategies for dealing with passive behaviours include:

  • Ask open-ended questions to draw them into a conversation. Avoid “why” questions as these provoke defensiveness.
  • Ask them for their ideas around a solution: “What other ways might we solve this problem?”
  • Make the communication environment safe for them to be honest and have time to make their contribution e.g. only those holding a ball may speak – pass the ball to the passive ones at least once in each discussion.
  • Use “I” statements: “I want a solution that we can both commit to.”
  • Be patient and persistent and show warmth and support.
  • Use a decision-making system to make it easier for passive people to make decisions. e.g. paired comparison analysis.
  • Use communication methods that allow them to remain anonymous to the wider group e.g. email responses to a collator.

Additional strategies for dealing with passive aggressive behaviours include:

  • Use negative brainstorming as an idea generating technique to draw out the aggressive behaviours through the veneer of passivity.
  • Use a challenge workshop to get objections to a course of action on the table and dealt with.

Questioning techniques

When dealing with resistant people, whether they are domineering or passive, it is important that project members and stakeholders have good questioning skills, in order to carry out these techniques. The questioning skills include the ability and knowledge to use open and closed questions for the appropriate purpose, and to create question strings which draw people to conclusions without creating a defensive response.

Open and closed questions

Open questions are of the form:

  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Who
  • How
  • Why

Open questions are used to get more information from an individual and to keep them talking.

There is a hierarchy of open questions which comprises:

  1. What, where and when at the bottom rung being the least intrusive questions
  2. Who and how at the next rung being a little more intrusive
  3. “Why?” being the most intrusive of all and often seen as questioning the values of the person being questioned.

Closed questions are questions which may be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” or with one of two alternatives e.g. “Is the licence for you or somebody else?” Closed questions have a structure where the answer to the question is contained within the question.

Closed questions are used for verification.

The majority of people naturally use closed questions and unknowingly actually find it difficult to ask a good structure of open questions away from a classroom. Many have difficulty even within the safe confines of a classroom.

Using “What” questions in a string

Turning questions that you may have framed as a “Why” question as a “What” question enables you to not to be seen as questioning values and also makes it difficult for people to not answer the question or the follow up question.

The form of a “What” questioning string is as follows:

  1. “What was it about that customer that annoyed you?”
  2. “I was not annoyed!”
  3. “What do you think the customer may have thought?”
  4. “Personally, I don’t care!”
  5. “What is it about this customer that makes you not care what they think?”

Using a “What” questioning technique allows you to be probing, at the same time as maintaining a calm demeanour.

It is useful for both domineering and passive people.

Part of a change management strategy

Change management strategies should, at their simplest level, be aimed at engaging the organisation through the layers of management and in driving individual adoption of the changed behaviours and skills required to work effectively in the changed environment.

The skills to deal with resistance from difficult people – both domineering and passive – are not naturally evident in a large majority of people. It is important for both engaging the organisation and driving individual adoption, that project members and relevant stakeholders charged with implementing the change are taught the skills as part of a change management strategy.

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