I ran a coaching group recently where a leader was experiencing considerable resistance to a program of change he was implementing. It was in an area that definitely needed to be reformed. There were legacy issues, aggressive behaviour, competitiveness and a previous leader who had got stuff done by using hierarchical power, ‘my way or the highway.’
The resistance to the reforms took a common path, with responses from staff like,
‘But we’ve always done it this way,’ and the dismissive mantra of, ‘he’s an inexperienced leader,’
plus a bit of ‘pack mentality’ – meaning they came together to reinforce their potentially misguided views.
Assuming they are out to get us
The group I was sitting with, in their effort to support the reforming leader – who was under significant stress, responded by saying,
‘You are doing the right things – they are out to get you’.
I was a bit taken aback by this and challenged them,
‘Why are you assuming ill intent?’
Why do we tend to default to this assumption when we see people defending their patch? I think we need to look a little deeper. Because typically what we are looking at is protective behaviour – which is a normal defense mechanism when our social threat response is activated.
Social Threat Response
David Rock’s SCARF model describes social threats in five areas:
1. Status – sense of personal worth
2. Certainty – sense of what the future holds
3. Autonomy – sense of control over life
4. Relatedness – sense of safety with others
5. Fairness – sense of fairness
Since change initiatives activate all of these, perhaps a more insightful approach is to understand that your team is operating under stress and showing the worst of themselves in the same way you might be…Alternatively, to imagine they are doing their best in the same way you are trying to.
The irony is that I could imagine myself sitting with the team he wanted to reform and them saying exactly the same things,
‘He’s out to get us, he’s not on our side.’
I heard a lot of talk about being tough and the flip side of being too soft. We need to move beyond this polarised way of thinking, ‘I’m either soft or I’m tough.’ Another leader I know loves to talk about the ‘bleeding hearts.’ This is a blunt instrument.
Impactful leaders seek to understand, look to the root causes of defensive behaviour and engage with the threat responses that the change has provoked. Doesn’t mean you turn into a marshmallow or that you don’t have challenging conversations but that you start by building relationships and gaining a deeper understanding of what the defenses represent. Of course there are some people who have ill intent but they are the exception not the rule.
And what happened to the leader?
He had a realisation he’d been so focused on coming in ‘reforming’ that he’d hadn’t really built the relationships and that they were stuck in a cycle of his defensive behaviour hitting up against theirs.
He decided to reform his own approach in order to reform the area.