Organizational Change

How do you lead when no one wants to follow?

January 10, 2013: 12:32 PM ET

Overcoming employee resistance to change is among the biggest challenges managers face. Don't try to do it all on your own.tug of war --- Image by © Images.com/Corbis

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Late last year, the top management at my company unveiled a major strategy change for 2013, and put those of us in middle management in charge of making sure everyone who reports to us is on board with the new approach. Without going into too much detail, I'll just say that this new direction requires big changes in how things get done on a day-to-day basis, and these changes are extremely unpopular with my team. I've spent the past few weeks listening to complaints -- some fairly legitimate, others just stupid -- about the new order of things, why it won't work, why it's not fair, etc., etc.

I understand that, to some extent, it will just take time for people to adjust, but time is one luxury I haven't got. The first "goalpost" (target result) is looming at the end of the quarter. Meanwhile, there is a task force that is supposedly coordinating everyone's efforts, but I can't get them to answer any questions. I realize this is a complicated situation, but do you have any advice? — Michigan Middleman

Dear M.M.: Volumes have been written about this, because, as George F. Brown, Jr. observes, "the single biggest cause of failed strategies is employee resistance to change." Brown is CEO of Blue Canyon Partners, a Chicago consulting firm that advises Fortune 500 companies on how to make change stick. He recently completed an exhaustive research project on what works and what doesn't. The study yielded four main conclusions.

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First, external forces rarely cause a strategy shift to fail. "The most remarkable thing we found is that, when we asked executives and employees what barriers they faced, it was never that the idea wasn't good, or that competitors or customers got in the way," says Brown. Instead, in almost all cases, the enemy was within: "Internal resistance, or a failure of leadership, or both, were to blame."

A second finding: For a major change to happen, top management has to be constantly, and visibly, involved in cheering on the troops. "Senior executives have to sell it," says Brown. "Too often, what happens is that the people at the top say, 'Yup, let's do this,' dump the implementation on middle management, and turn their attention to the next thing." Sound familiar?

As for the task force you say isn't responding to your questions, Brown isn't surprised to hear it. "The team that is supposed to be running the implementation of the new plan had better be the 'A team,' not the organization's current crop of homeless," Brown says. At many of the companies he studied, those task forces were made up of people the company didn't know what to do with, "either because they were nearing retirement, or had been displaced by a reorganization, or what have you. But you really need your best people on this."

A fourth cause of new strategies flaming out: In planning for major change, top managers often do not take into account that "the implications of the change will be far more extensive than anyone originally guessed," says Brown. "In the U.S., we tend to see things through rose-colored glasses. In Japanese companies, for example, it's common to plan for contingency funding and extra flexibility on deadlines because they know there will be surprises. If you don't build some slack into the process, those surprises can wreck your new strategy."

Interesting, but as you've no doubt noticed, most of these things are beyond your control. "I really sympathize with anyone in the middle who's trying to execute a major change without the right support from above," says Brown. The first thing you need to do is seek out that support: "Find a champion upstairs who will listen and make suggestions, and give that person regular progress reports on how things are going."

These should be "as candid and complete as possible as you go along," Brown adds. "Don't wait until you hit a major snag and then drop a bombshell." If you can, choose a champion who is not your direct boss, he suggests, because "it's tempting to be less than honest about problems and setbacks when you're talking to the person who determines your next raise."

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You might also enlist your champion's help in getting your reluctant subordinates to accept the new plan. "Someone more senior than you are needs to step in and explain the reasons for the changes," says Brown. "Most people will get on board if they see that top management is committed to the strategy, and if they understand why."

What if they don't? Once you've made it clear why the change is needed, and made sure people have the resources necessary to do their part, sit down with anyone who is still dragging his or her feet, Brown advises, and "tell them that, if they can't participate in this process, they may need to move on."

Firing people is one of the toughest things that managers have to do, but your first priority has to be reaching that first-quarter "goalpost" and sometimes, Brown notes, it comes down to your neck or theirs. "It's hard," he says. "But I've seen too many companies where resisters were allowed to kill good ideas."

Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever had to persuade employees to go along with an unpopular strategy? What worked (or didn't) for you? Leave a comment below.

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