In this uncertain market, many brand leaders feel the pressure to rapidly respond to changing customer needs. But it’s not enough to insist your teams move faster or adapt to the market: you must help them develop new ways of working to achieve new objectives in emergent conditions.

Typically, that requires a two-pronged effort: first, you must change the existing systems and structures themselves, like simplifying decision-making so that teams can move faster, or improving collaboration across teams to provide a better customer experience. At the same time, you must also ensure teams are onboard with the changes you’re making. Do they feel confident in the vision and plan for the future, or do they suspect leaders are flailing about in a desperate attempt to find something, anything, that works? Will they be punished if they try something new and it fails? 

No matter what sort of changes you’re looking to implement within your organization, you’ll undoubtedly encounter some form of resistance — even if the change is for the best. People have varied and interconnected reasons for resisting change, but we’ve found these five categories are the most common:

  • They believe change isn’t necessary. The old adage is powerful: if it’s not broke, why fix it? This attitude is common when people aren’t aware of the risks of staying the course — a common result of being too far removed from the customer to understand what’s changing. Alternatively, they might agree that change should happen, but that it is already taking place, or that it’s happening fast enough, and other priorities are more important.
  • They’re afraid of the risks inherent in change. Doing something new can cause real harm, either to individuals whose careers are impacted for doing something “wrong,” or to the business itself, such as cannibalization of existing sales. More tenured employees, meanwhile, have seen promised changes fail before, and may believe they’re protecting others’ time and energy from being wasted. 
  • They can’t conceive of an alternative. Whether due to regulations, insufficient resources, or simply a lack of vision, individuals believe “that’s just the way it is,” and there’s no point in trying otherwise. They may even want to double down on the old way of doing things (even the wrong things) in an attempt to prove it was right all along. 
  • They personally don’t want to change. In theory, they’re not opposed to things changing — they just aren’t interested in participating themselves. Maybe they believe the work required to change isn’t in their job description, or the change won’t impact their work. They could also be skeptical that their efforts will make a difference, in which case, why bother? 
  • They’re unable to change. Finally, there’s the simple belief that people can’t change: they don’t have the skills, time, or authority to do something different. At an organizational level, this looks like teams slipping back into old habits.

It’s important to realize that when attempting to change any organization, encountering these barriers is completely normal and expected. It doesn’t mean your plan is a failure, or that it’s a reason to abandon change: in fact, as Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes, “everything looks like a failure in the middle.” Instead, think of failure as one data point, not as a finality. If you acknowledge, upfront, that things will go awry, you can create a plan for how to get things back on track when the inevitable does happen.

The bad news is that there are no silver bullets: no one solution will help you overcome every barrier to change. The good news is that the following tools can serve as boosters to overcome those barriers and get you back on course:

  • Self-Reflect. Consider how you’re showing up as a leader: do others believe they can discuss problems with you and work towards a solution? Or are you either reactive or too enthusiastic about change? Either extreme may prevent individuals from coming to you with challenges. Remember, your team will look to you to set the tone for the change, so make sure you’re showing up at your best. 
  • Plan. Sometimes you just need to get back to basics and make sure everyone’s on the same page about why the organization is making these changes. What are the intended outcomes? Who’s responsible for doing what? What’s happening next? Increasing clarity can reduce resistance — or if nothing else, uncover underlying reasons why people don’t want to change. 
  • Pilot. Especially when change is perceived as risky, find opportunities and create spaces where failing won’t cause lasting damage — either to the individual’s career or the organization at large. If you’re considering using a new platform, for instance, is it possible to test in one market, or with one segment, before rolling it out to a larger audience? Then, when failure does occur, make sure that leaders (including yourself) respond to it equanimously, encouraging teams to think of it as learning. 
  • Build Skills. If people doubt that they have the ability to change, the solution may be as straightforward as providing more training. Maybe they need upskilling on a new tool, or want more roleplaying opportunities to practice a new process before applying it to a real case. This can also double as a career development opportunity, and serve as an alternative to relying on raises to retain top talent.
  • Reward. Sometimes people want to do things differently, but the organization continues to reward old habits. That could look like anything from monetary rewards (e.g., bonuses based on outdated KPIs) to cultural responses (e.g., a leader rolling their eyes when a junior member proposes an untested tactic). Assess what behaviors get rewarded, and what those rewards look like, so that you can modify them to reinforce new and desirable behaviors.
  • Persuade. To win people over, you first have to understand your audience just as you would with your brand. What’s most important to them? What evidence do they find compelling: do they need to see hard data, or would a moving story make them more likely to act? Focus on how they’ll benefit from the change, and paint a picture of a better future.

Consumer needs are only going to continue to evolve and flux at a faster pace, so learning how to identify and overcome barriers to change is a critical skill for any brand leader. The most important thing to remember is that changing how your organization works may be challenging, but it is always possible if you yourself are willing to adapt how you work.

Cover image source: Maria Thalassinou