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Resistance is Real: 4 Steps to Lead People Through Transformation

Leading change can be like herding cats, and yet, some leaders excel at encouraging people to move in a new direction. 



Image Credit: Midjourney

The destination is set. The path is clear, straight-forward, easy. So why do some people do everything in their power to avoid making difficult changes?

Really, we shouldn’t be surprised. Leading change can be like herding cats, and yet, some leaders excel at encouraging people to move in a new direction. 

While we often avoid talking about the pandemic these days, there is no denying that it proved how those with the ability to shift direction quickly were able to leap ahead, capturing a strategic advantage. And that is why I differentiate change management from leadership. 

Managing change is reactive. Surfing waves is fun, but you can only go where the waves take you. They will roll over you if you are not fast enough. Change leadership creates change whenever possible to get ahead of the competition, and proactively empowers people to shape and transform the waves that are unavoidable, harnessing them to provide the most benefit.

Management is a follower’s game. Great leaders create change based on great strategy.

Leading change is a proactive partnership between employees and leaders to ensure strategic, necessary change works to the greatest benefit of the organization and its stakeholders. But there is always that risk of resistance.

The good news is that there are four proven steps you can take to predict the response to change and help people embrace it successfully:

1. Step into their shoes

This is the hardest part for leaders. Leaders commonly overestimate their understanding of what employees are thinking and feeling. Gather a group of employees and explain the destination. Ask them what they think it will take to get there, and what they think has to happen. Ask them what they need. Weave their input into your description of the journey. This is an important step to generate buy-in.

“Yes, your transformation will be hard. Yes, you will feel frightened, messed up and knocked down. Yes, you’ll want to stop. Yes, it’s the best work you’ll ever do.” — Robin Sharma

2. Ask for “likes”

Once people understand the goal, would they give the concept a thumbs up or a thumbs down? Do they like it? It’s very hard to get people moving towards a goal if they don’t like it or don’t believe it’s necessary. Ask them, and get clarity on why they don’t like it. Objections tell you where you need to build up messaging that will appeal to your resistors.

3. Test for landmines

As you continue to develop your messaging about “the change,” explain the journey to get to the goal and ask, “What could go wrong?” “What will you need to be successful?” Employees are pretty good at identifying the pitfalls that are invisible to leaders. They know how this will affect their daily work. They know what customers will think. They know which peers will resist and why. Let them guide you.

When a goal is undesirable and littered with landmines, it’s a recipe for resistance. Focus your change leadership efforts on those that envision the most problems.

4. Engage and involve

The first three steps enable you to understand the challenge fully so that you can build a plan that moves people in the right direction. Equipped with that input, you can:

  • Emphasize benefits of the change that have particular appeal for your employees (from their point of view, not yours!).
  • Explain how you will support and equip employees to be successful through change (defusing landmines).
  • Involve those most likely to resist, empowering them to help their peers as they also help themselves by shaping the journey through change.
  • Listen actively to feedback from those that must embrace the change, and continue to respond and modify your messaging and path forward as needed.
  • Recognize every step in the right direction, reinforcing the change you are hoping to achieve.

Resistance can throw your entire program off track. It only takes one to lure others to the dark side.

Use these steps to get out in front and scout for issues before they arise. We can’t avoid all of the problems and we may not have an answer to every objection, but acknowledging that we’ve done our homework, have solved what we can, and empathize with the pain that will be endured goes a long way to silencing the objectors and encouraging everyone else.

Jeff Skipper is an international change leadership consultant for organizations in energy, finance, technology, and other industries. For over 25 years, beginning with a 12-year career at IBM, he has guided change projects by focusing on the people side of change. As CEO he grew a transformation services company to seven figures in just five years. He and his family live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His new book is Dancing with Disruption: Leading Dramatic Change During Global Transformation. Learn more at

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