Executive Education

Engaging the Head, Hands, and Heart to Overcome Resistance to Change

Research shows that less than 30% of change efforts succeed. In any other profession, a 70% failure rate would be unacceptable. It’s time we make it so in the professional ranks of leadership. While the ability to accelerate organizational change is arguably the most important role of a leader, it is still one of the least understood.

Some leaders may excel at creating long-range strategy or executing short-term plans—skills they acquire through innate ability and experience—but few have mastered the art of getting people to change the way they approach their jobs. Great leaders of change positively impact business performance by engaging employees in the change process.

In a study by the Conference Board, respondents rated organizational resistance as the biggest challenge leaders face when trying to implement successful change. Resistance is a natural reaction to any change. For example, employees have been trained to work in a particular way; they follow certain processes; and they have mastered those processes over time. Then a change comes along. Isn’t it natural that at least some people would question the change even when the reasons are compelling?

Others might go beyond questioning and simply refuse to budge. Psychologists and motivational theorists shed light on why people resist. At the most basic level, resistance to change is a breakdown in what we call the Commitment Curve. Any change requires people to move through the curve from Unawareness on the left to Commitment on the right with all of the other phases in between. Different people will be at different places on the curve when change is announced. If they are on the left side of the curve, their resistance will be greater. If they are on the right side of the curve, their resistance will be less.

In the Unawareness Phase, an employee typically won’t know anything about the need for change. Announcing the change helps, but they usually need more than a memo, presentation, or email. In the Awareness Phase, employees know the basic facts about the change and the plan for implementation.

It’s not until the Understanding Phase that most employees start to realize why the change is important and how it will impact their work as well as their coworkers and customers. However, understanding is still a long way from Acceptance where employees actually buy in to the change and are willing to give it a try. Finally, the Commitment Phase is when employees and leaders alike are passionate and energized about the change. Their desire for a better future state outweighs the need for the comfort of the status quo.

Many leaders prefer not to deal with the human side of change and instead focus on the technical aspects of change. But until leaders change the way they change, change initiatives will stall, or worse, falter completely. Understanding the Commitment Curve and assessing where employees are on the curve, is one way that leaders can anticipate the level of resistance to change and plan ways to overcome it. We use a simple tool called Head, Hands, Heart to accelerate the transition through the commitment phases. Head activities (e.g., electronic communication, live meetings, memos, etc.) emphasize facts, logic, and details. When leaders engage the head, they answer questions about the rationale of the change—the what, when, where, how, and who. Leaders engage the Hands of employees by orienting them to the new skills and capabilities required, letting them try it out, and rewarding people for experimenting. Engaging the hands allows employees to pilot the new system before “going live” and to see how it will improve their work. Leaders know they are making progress along the Commitment Curve when employees are confident that they have the skills to perform the new work required of them.

Engaging the Heart is often more difficult than the head and hands. Leaders tend to shy away from addressing the emotional side of change. Many are uncomfortable and untrained in dealing with emotions at work. But emotion and passion is the powerful fuel that ignites and accelerates change! Don’t miss the opportunity to engage the hearts of employees. Here are just a few activities that can help:

  • Describe why the change is important.
  • Share “What’s in it for me?”
  • Describe how the change will impact friends and trusted colleagues.
  • Summarize the benefits to customers and suppliers.
  • Engage employees in the assessment of the problem(s).
  • Delegate responsibility and ownership for change.
  • Keep score; hold people accountable; show improvement.
  • Share positive feedback about what’s improving.
  • Celebrate small wins.
  • Make convincing decisions that show you are serious about the change.
  • Provide learning opportunities.
  • Give people a chance to develop new relationships in small teams.
  • Show the impact and value of the change.
  • Aim for a realistic amount of change.
  • Say “no” to what the organization will no longer do.

While this list isn’t exhaustive, it can help you engage the hearts of your people.

American futurist Marilyn Ferguson said, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…. It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.” By engaging the head, hands, and heart, leaders give employees the courage they need to let go of the old, embrace the new, and commit to doing things differently.

Written by: Kendall Lyman and Tony C. Daloisio are authors of Change The Way You Change: 5 Roles Of Leaders Who Accelerate Business Performance. Lyman is a founding principal of The Highlands Group. Daloisio is founder and CEO of Charter Oak Consulting and a principal of The Highlands Group.

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