Leading Change in the Face of Opposition


Robert F. Kennedy once said, “About twenty percent of the people are against any change.” Our findings, in working with managers and supervisors tasked with leading organizational change, support Kennedy’s theory. No matter how effective a leader you are, it is not uncommon for you to periodically find your change efforts being challenged, or even sabotaged. Some people seem to come programmed with a basic distrust of any change and will work frantically to preserve “the way things used to be around here.” While we can’t change the behavior of others, we can change our own. The following six tips will help you successfully lead your team forward, even if you face a sea of resistance.


Encourage Participation

It’s easy to take potshots when you have no ownership in the change effort. When anticipating making a change, get the team members who will be affected by that change involved early on. Find out what their fears are. What would it take for them to overcome those fears and support the change? People don’t so much resent change, as they resent being changed. Don’t forget to include your most negative people. Getting them involved will alert you to potential drawbacks and challenges. Our experience has been that including negative, informal leaders in the change effort ultimately creates a more positive outcome. Our advice? Don’t leave them out or you may find them lobbing hand grenades in your direction once they realize what’s going on.



We are fond of saying, “Sell problems, not solutions.” Rather than telling your employees how they need to change, present the problem. Ask for their input regarding how to make the change. If you do a good job selling the need to change, people will be willing to share their insights regarding solutions. Possible questions: “What are your thoughts regarding…?,” “What would it take to accomplish this?,” and “If this solution won’t work, what might work?” These queries help keep dialogue open and engage employees in looking for solutions rather than defending the past.



If you use questioning strategies to engage employees in searching for solutions and to get their support for change efforts, listening is critical. Listen with an open mind. Listen to all input. Focus on staying positive, rather than becoming defensive. When tempted to discount a contribution, question further. For example, “I’m not sure I understand. Could you explain that in more detail?” From experience, we know when it comes to selling the need for change, the most successful leaders are those who are experts at asking the right questions and then really listening to the responses.


Focus on Solutions, Not the Opposition

It’s easy to get emotionally caught up when dealing with opposition and begin to see opposition as a “them against me” scenario. This is just the time, however, when you need to maintain a clear, unemotional focus. As a leader, you must work hard to keep the people issues separate from the facts. One way to do this is to focus clearly on your goal or outcome. When you are tempted to blame others personally for your lack of progress, refocus on the reason for asking people to make changes. As you think about the problem that has created the need to change, ask yourself two questions, “What is it we need to accomplish?” and “What will it take for us to achieve our goals?” By focusing on solutions, you will channel your energies positively.


Demonstrate Respect for All Opinions

Opinions? I’ve got one, you’ve got one, and if yours is different from mine, of course mine’s right! When facing resistance, it is natural to spend time defending your position. As a reputable leader, obviously the change you are proposing is good for the organization. So, the natural tendency is to defend your position. Leadership, however, is based on developing an effective relationship with those you lead. When you concentrate on defending your position, you discount the opinion of others who are in opposition with you. Instead, question the opposition to more fully understand their viewpoint. Listen to their responses. Finally, seek solutions that demonstrate respect, and benefit each side. In other words, to win support for the change, look for ways that make it easier for your resisters to join you.


Keep a Positive Attitude

When the going gets tough, and it seems the opposition is ganging up on you, remember to keep a positive attitude. This is critical to your success. Don’t take resistance personally. Understand that employee resistance often stems from personal apprehension and insecurity. Instead, focus on your vision for your team’s successful implementation of the change. Remember, your attitude regarding change has a significant impact on others.


The more positive you are about the benefits of the change, the easier it will be for others to support the new direction. What’s great about attitude is that it is completely within your control. Maintain that positive attitude and there’s no stopping as you successfully navigate your course through the choppy sea of resistance!


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