Essentials for Making Change Work: Dealing with the Old Guard

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Chris Edgelow, Sundance Consulting

There is an element of the “old guard” in each of us when it comes to any major change. That inner voice or the critical skeptic is actually an ancient biological response that keeps us from doing anything new that might endanger us until we have assessed the situation and have sufficient information to move forward.

When I refer to the old guard in this article, I’m not referring to the collective inner voices that need to be convinced. I’m referring to that small percentage of people in every organization who are clearly not engaging with change and, in some situations, are actually doing things to undermine the successful implementation of change. It is the old guard group that most leaders have the greatest difficulty addressing. Many leaders would rather do anything than address this challenge. The old guard component is a normal and ongoing phenomenon in any changing organization—so leaders might as well learn how to deal with them effectively.

The old guard can take many shapes. Sometimes it is one specific group, department, or function. In other situations, it is a number of people from a variety of roles and functional areas. It can be a specific level in the organizational hierarchy, and, in other situations, it is found at many levels, including the executive level. In some situations, it is very easy to determine who is a part of the old guard because they are very visible and vocal in their resentment and animosity about change. In other cases, when asked publicly if they support current changes within the organization, their heads nod in enthusiastic agreement and support but their behavior back in the organization is in diametric opposition to the change. Alternatively, the resistance operates below the level of consciousness, in very subtle yet influential ways. The first task for the leaders in dealing with the old guard is to determine who is in this group.

The second task is to determine why they are resisting change. Leaders often assume they know the reasons for resistance, which is a part of the problem—but usually they really don’t know. People have very valid reasons to defy change, and leaders need to know what they are. People don’t expend energy in resisting change for no reason.

The third essential task is for leaders to determine the interests of the old guard during change. This task requires quality face-to-face dialogue—again an aspect many leaders are reluctant to engage in when it comes to dealing with the old guard. It’s much easier to communicate via media, the rumor mill, or through cryptic written documentation. None of these methods is effective, but they are easy. Consequently much resistance is historically based on inadequate communication and poor relationships among critical players. The only way to deal with it is head on, through effective face-to-face discussions. Alternately, a third-party facilitator can be very helpful in creating a more effective dialogue by providing the structure and format for the discussions—but it can’t be accomplished any other way than meeting to address all the issues.

When it comes right down to it, we typically find four major reasons why people are a part of an old guard faction. Here is what leaders must do to deal with them effectively:

1. People don’t know what’s going on.
Here the problem is one of essential change-related communication. People may not know why change is necessary in the first place or where the organization is going as a result of these changes. Nor are they aware of any plans in place or where the organization is in the planning/implementation process.

Leaders must dramatically increase their communication efforts to effectively deal with this level of resistance. They must ensure everyone understands the strategic imperative for this change (why it is necessary and where we are going), as well as the implementation plan. This understanding can only be accomplished by talking with people, not by sending more emails.

2. People aren’t involved in what’s going on.
Here, the challenge is that people know what is going on and why, but do not feel involved in the process. Somebody is trying to impose something on them, and they don’t like it. Because they have not been involved, the plans are likely seen as flawed, and, in some cases, the actual rationale for change does not make any sense in their minds.

Leaders have to find ways to intentionally reach out to these groups and involve them in the process. The ideas, insights, opinions, and experience in the old guard group are very valuable to making change succeed. They have information that is critical to the success of change. It’s important to get their involvement and, at the same time, ensure that the decision-making process is transparent and accessible to everyone.

3. People don’t think they are able to make the necessary changes.
People can understand what is going on, and be involved in the process to some degree, yet still resist. In this case, they resist because they are unsure of their ability to learn what is required to make the change work themselves.

Leaders must be very diligent about providing the learning and training necessary to make the new change succeed. They must be aware of the subtle signs of anxiety in people when they are faced with having to learn something new. They need to find ways to lessen this learning anxiety and increase people’s ability and desire to survive in the organization.

4. People are simply unwilling to make the necessary changes.
These people know what’s going on have been involved in the process, and aren’t concerned with their ability to make the change succeed. They are simply unwilling to put in the effort. For reasons that are very important to them, they will not engage.

After making every effort to help people come around, leaders now must make some clear decisions. What is it going to cost the organization and the success of the change if this group continues to hang on without engaging in the change? How important are these people to the long-term future success of the organization? When these questions are answered, the necessary actions become obvious. It all comes down to effective performance management.

There are only two positions people can take when it comes to making change work— resistance or acceptance. Any other position always impedes the success of change.

About the Author:
Chris Edgelow is the founder and president of Sundance Consulting, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations change.

For over twenty years, Chris has consulted with a diverse range of organizations speaking and facilitating training programs in leadership and organizational transition. Chris has authored and published a number of resources on topics relating to leading changing organizations. Using an integrated approach, he helps leaders in organizations recognize the challenges they face so they can build internal capacity and successfully lead complex change.
Ph: 1.888.944.8383
www.sundance.ca
chris@sundance.ca

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