senior leader resistance

Senior leader resistance – how to recognise it and what to do about it

I have already explained my dislike of the phrase ‘people don’t like change’. So it was great to attend a recent Project Challenge session called ‘Resistance is Good, and People do like Change’, exploring senior leader resistance.

Senior leader support, from decision makers, sponsors, board members and senior executives, is vital for successful change. If they resist, change initiatives can be delayed, damaged or even abandoned. As business change managers, we need to be able to minimise the chances of senior resistance. We also need to be able to recognise it and manage it if it does occur.

Resistance is good, and people do like change

Andy Taylor, the session facilitator, took the same view of resistance as I do. People do not dislike change in general. They may, however, dislike certain changes, or the way change is run.

Andy defined resistance as:

“a negative behavioural response to a change, which is driven by an emotional undercurrent”

It is the emotional undercurrent which makes resistance good. When senior leaders show emotions it means that they care about what is happening, and react when they feel things are not right.

How to recognise when senior leaders are resisting

In the session, two actors played the roles of a project manager and a senior leader. They brought alive common events which illustrate senior leader resistance, including the leader:

  • not reading emails and project documents
  • being unavailable for meetings and discussions
  • changing the subject to avoid difficult conversations
  • prioritising other work over the change
  • distracting key staff with other activities

I would add the following events, all of which I have experienced:

  • a reluctance to communicate widely about the change
  • asking for more and more information before making decisions
  • delaying pilots and roll outs because of flimsy risks and issues
  • blocking access to resources including finance, information, expertise, technology and even training rooms

It can be hard for us to spot when senior leaders are resisting our change. They may behave in any of the ways listed above for perfectly valid reasons. For example, all leaders are busy so can fail to read emails or attend meetings. They regularly have to prioritise resources and activities for the benefit of the wider organisation.

In addition, stakeholders working at senior levels are usually experienced in organisational politics. They can resist in a number of sophisticated and complex ways without it being obvious what they are doing. It is up to us to watch out for any behaviours or activities which could be resistant. Once spotted, we need to find out if there are any emotional undercurrents which could be causing the resistance. We then need to manage these to minimise negative effects on our change.

How to manage senior leader resistance

In Andy’s session, the senior leader resisted because he:

  • was worried about the effect of the change on his department
  • felt that the project manager was not engaging with him
  • thought that his knowledge and experience was not being used to reduce the impact and increase the benefits

Andy then talked through how the project manager could have reduced this resistance, by:

  • Finding ways to engage – talking to the leader on their terms
  • Exploring local benefits with the leader – WIIFM
  • Listening and learning – the senior leader has vital information and knowledge
  • Spending time on the ‘shop floor’ to really get to know the departments
  • Increasing trust by letting the leader know he cared about what matters to them.

He summed up the session with a suggested approach to deal with resistance: respect it; name it; acknowledge it; work with it.

What do I do next?

Practice engaging with senior leaders

Andy gives sound advice, and I would recommend using his suggested engagement techniques with senior leaders in every change, whether they are resisting or not.

Engaging meaningfully with leaders, however, is often easier said than done. They are always busy, so it can be hard to find any time with them. They are powerful and can be intimidating, often limiting the usefulness of any time you do get with them.

After the session, the actors were available for members of the audience to practice challenging engagement with. Being able to run through a conversation before having it for real can help a lot when faced with scary stakeholders. Use a friend or trusted colleague to practice on and you may feel a lot more confident and in control when you finally get to engage with your senior leader.

Recognise complex undercurrents

Senior leader resistance is often caused by more sensitive and complex issues than those explored in the session. I have experienced times when leaders resist because they:

  • disagree that the proposed solution is the right one to solve the problem
  • believe that the change should be run from their department, instead of the one which is actually doing it
  • think that time and resources should be spent on different change initiatives altogether

In these cases, the emotional undercurrent is compounded by personal power and ambition, conflicting values and beliefs, and lack of trust. It is impossible to discuss these openly, let alone confirm or prove what is causing the resistance.

We need to deal with complex senior leader resistance on a case by case basis. In order to decide how to tackle it, we need to really understand our stakeholders, including:

  • what motivates and drives them
  • who they influence and who influences them
  • their values and beliefs
  • how powerful they are in relation to their colleagues

Only with this deep understanding can we come up with suitable activities to tackle the causes of the resistance and limit the damage. It is incredibly challenging, but can be done – perhaps a subject for another post.

In the meantime, do share your thoughts, any techniques you use or experiences you have had with senior leader resistance in the comments box below.



3 Thoughts on “Senior leader resistance – how to recognise it and what to do about it”

  • Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. It is really interesting to hear how positively the execs responded to you taking the lead and introducing yourself. How sad that some people are held in such awe that no-one asks them how their holiday was!

    Your experience shows that making the first move to build relationships with senior leaders will probably be welcomed by them, and could really help in building relationships and gaining vital support for change.

  • Very interesting read! “Practice engaging with senior leaders”? My thoughts on this….
    You know that feeling when you need to (or rather have to) engage with senior stakeholders such as execs? You need to reach out to them, ask them for their input or support…. but you just seem to be bottling it… holding back…not sure how to approach them… how will they react…? Yep we’ve all been there! There is a way forward thats always worked for me…….just talk to them like you would anyone else. An exec I worked with once said to me “you’re one of the few people who actually makes an effort to speak to me – people just don’t realise how lonely it is for execs and most people avoid or struggle to speak to us.” That really got me thinking. I mentioned this to the CEO’s PA over a coffee and she also said that the CEO once commented after comming back from leave that noone had even asked ‘Did you have a good holiday?’ – thats the first thing you would ask a colleague when they return. Execs have so many people to look out for but fewer people to lookout for them. It’s as if “well you’re at the top of the food chain you don’t need anyone” – but how wrong could you be! The pressure from above and below is magnified and execs have to hold their nerve – but they are humans!! They have the same emotions we do – recognise this and you could really unlock their proactive support.

    I always do my homework – get to know a fact or two about an exec, what makes them tick. Then when the opportunity arises I simply go up to them as I would anyone else and ask… “so how are you today?” “what’s going on on you’re world?” …something to break the ice. Recently I met an exec face to face after a few years…I had seconds to think what do I do? I said “you’re Mr X, we’ve not met before….(shook hands) it’s like meeting a mini celebrity” I smiled and the ice was broken. He made the time to talk (even though he was busy) and I sowed a seed (my name and what I do). I even took the opportunity to say “I might need you’re help one day so do remember me”…. then I followed up with an email at the end of the day which was acknowledged with a welcome response.

    I think execs want to see you break the ice – you will stand out and they get a release from the daily stress they live in.
    A smile goes a long way – if you smile you get one back – so use your body language, make the connection and dont let that one meeting become a distant memory – find a way to continue to engage.
    Try it and let me know how it was for you!! Do share your experiences aswe all deal with things in a different way.

Comments are closed.