So, you’re ready to implement an exciting new initiative and you’re convinced it’s going to transform your current organisational culture for the better. Great!
Now comes the tricky bit — navigating a potential workplace terrain of pushback, confusion or fear. We get it, change can be a difficult pill to swallow and some level of resistance is to be expected. However, too little buy-in from your employees or leadership team is a surefire way for your grand plans to wither before they’ve been given a chance to bloom. Adaptability is an absolute necessity in the rapidly changing context of our current work climate. As a curator of company culture, it’s your responsibility to facilitate employee engagement and shepherd your team through necessary changes by actively communicating a clear vision for the future. To help you with this challenging task, we’ve identified the top seven strategies to help you negotiate change resistance, address concerns and increase buy-in from your team.
1. Big Plans? Start With Baby Steps
“Some ideas are just plain tough to sell—those that are too far ahead of the audience’s current understanding, for instance, or too much of a stretch beyond the organization’s norms.”Harvard Business Review
A frequent mistake leaders make is introducing too many grand-scale changes too quickly. Where possible, break your initiative down into smaller chunks so as not to overwhelm your team with a future they can’t quite visualise yet. Remember, sustainable, effective change takes time. Give your team insights into the long term vision but focus heavily on the first steps they will need to take and guide them through this. Another benefit of this approach is that you will also be creating an environment that allows for more room to test and iterate each small change gradually, getting each element running smoothly before moving on. This takes the pressure off significantly but ensures that you are always moving forward, ultimately with less resistance. Start with the easiest steps first and build up to more complex changes in due time.
2. Let’s Be Honest: Communication, Transparency & Openness
“The single most influential factor in a change initiative is the extent to which leaders commit from the outset to open, honest, and complete disclosure”John T. Malone, President & CEO of Hamot Health Foundation; Harvard Business Review
People will be much more willing to get on board with you if they feel that are getting all of the information and understand the background or context as to why these changes are necessary. As a leader, strong communication is vital, relayed with as much honesty and transparency around the change as possible. Provide your team with the W’s: what is changing, when/where will this take effect, who will be impacted, how will the changes be rolled out, and most importantly, why are we doing this? Take them through the problem and show them how you have reached this solution and why.
Next, communicate these changes within the context of your organisation. Why this and why now? Frame the issue. Where does this fit strategically within your company goals? Communicate a sense of urgency and context for why your plans are needed so this doesn’t appear like change for change’s sake.
“An issue’s place on your organization’s list of priorities depends heavily on how you package the idea … Once people see how your initiative fits into the big picture, they’ll be more willing to devote resources to it.”Harvard Business Review
3. Pick Your Timing
As a company culture advocate, you may feel pressure coming from the top or the bottom to implement change quickly, in line with your quarterly goals or other considerations. Just remember, any sustainable, long-lasting and meaningful initiative should be well thought out and implemented when the time is right. Where possible, push back against launching an idea if the timing feels off as your initiative will lose momentum and quickly fizzle.
“Issue sellers who accomplish their goals, we found, look for the best ways, venues, and times to voice their ideas and concerns—using rhetorical skill, political sensitivity, and interpersonal connections to move the right leaders to action.”Harvard Business Review
Think about the cultural climate in your workplace and ask yourself if this is a good backdrop under which to suggest something new? You can radically boost buy-in if people are in a more open mindset to change. A good time to make suggestions could be when other things are in flux too. Calendar hooks, like the start of a new quarter, can also be a refreshing time for new starts. If the values or direction of your company is shifting, so too can other initiatives jump on that wave of change. Perhaps you are welcoming new leadership or a new department – this is a great time to kick off a new initiative. On the flip side, if an entire department has just been made redundant due to budget cuts, then it’s probably not the best time to put your idea forward as you’ll encounter considerable resistance due to low morale.
4. Tailor Your Pitch
“More than any other tactic in our research sample, tailoring the pitch to decision makers was associated with success. It’s essential for issue sellers to familiarize themselves with their audience’s unique blend of goals, values, and knowledge and to allow that insight to shape their messages.”Harvard Business Review
You’re on a mission to get buy-in from employees and leaders across all levels and departments of your organisation. It’s not an easy job, is it? When you make your pitch you’ll need to strike a balance of presenting in a clear, well-researched way, but also addressing any fears or concerns that may arise. Paint a clear picture of change with a solid vision for the future. Use language that motivates and encourages, not criticises past efforts or dampens. This can involve tailoring your pitch to the specific audience you are speaking with in that moment. Instead of addressing everyone as a whole, break it down into smaller groups with common interests. This will mean you can address them in a far more specific way. Be equipped with all of the facts specific to that group but be willing to tap into or appeal to their emotions too. By going this extra mile, you will increase buy-in and genuine support for your plan.
“Full disclosure works best by going beyond the data, analysis, and reasons: Tapping into employees’ emotions is what enables a change effort to gain traction.”Harvard Business Review
5. Enlist Support
“Building a coalition generates organizational buy-in more quickly and on a larger scale as more people contribute energy and resources.”Harvard Business Review
That’s right, you can and you should have others advocating for your plan. Too many initiatives fail because buy-in originates from one source with no base of support from other key players within the organisation. When a plan is coming from top down only, your senior leadership team may be very enthusiastic but will garner little buy-in from larger junior levels of the organisation. Recognise that change can come from anywhere but support for that change should exist at each level of your company.
Ask yourself, who are your hidden influencers? Who could you enlist as an advocate for your initiative? In the early stages, identify a core group of change agents that can help you get buy-in. Build a diverse coalition of support for your idea. Give employees lower in the ranks opportunities to ask questions, share their views and strengthen the solution. Activate your middle managers by leveraging their position as bridges between senior and junior employees. When you have buy-in from the bottom up and the top down, you will effectively create a very solid state for implementing changes.
“The one-two punch of change driven from the top down and the bottom up creates a dynamic that consultant Mark A. Murphy calls “book-ending” the organization.”Harvard Business Review
6. Prepare For Resistance
One of the best offences is a good defence. Sometimes, you can’t avoid all forms of resistance as well laid out as your plan may be, so it may be something you have to weather as part of this important process. But don’t fret, there are ways to absorb the blow of negative attitudes and resistant forces. By simply being prepared for resistance, frustration or even anger, you can already mitigate the damaging impact of this.
Often resistance to change comes from others not understanding the concept, not seeing how it will fit in or not liking the messenger. You can gain buy-in by enabling people to feel seen and heard. Listen to your employees. Invite feedback. Try to be fair, open, and genuine in this phase of transition. Is there perhaps an element of their feedback you could take on board? Can you negotiate? How can you address their concerns? Come to the conversation with an open mind but also be prepared to challenge their opinions – you still need to be protective of your initiative, your time and your energy. Lay out the problem for them and see if they can help you to find a solution. Often, people just want to feel that their voice has been heard and, more often that not, they will reach the same solution as you upon deeper understanding. Whilst this can be a taxing part of the process, making the effort to foster solid relationships with employees is a powerful action in getting buy-in.
“Relationships are as important as ideas” in winning support for going in a new direction, says consultant Rick Maurer. In his book Why Don’t You Want What I Want? (Bard Press, 2002), he classifies resistance to change in three broad categories: “I don’t get it,” “I don’t like it,” and “I don’t like you.” Only the first of these arises from the content of the change; it can be addressed through explanation. The other two are emotional reactions, respectively, to the change or the change messenger.”Harvard Business Review
7. Follow up
Finally, don’t forget that change is an ongoing process. Follow up on each step after you take it. Set aside moments to track the progress and impact of your initiative and, in the spirit of transparency, share these insights with your team. If you’ve broken the process down into little chunks, it’s even more important to loop back and give updates on how the changes are tracking. What improvements have you seen already and what’s next? Once people start seeing the positive impact of your changes, you will get buy-in from them more easily next time as they will be more inclined to trust your vision, support you with less resistance and welcome new initiatives.