Leaders who have already earned loyal followers who believe in your vision, this post is for you.
You’ve challenged yourself and changed, grown and earned more buy-in than you once thought was possible. Your team has translated the vision you all now share into a meaningful mission and developed mission plans you’re already in the process of implementing.
At this stage, a year or two into the process, you can expect the following two things to happen:
First, all of the hard work you and your people have invested will pay off. Performance will improve––often dramatically. But the new highs will not stay that high because in reality, only a small portion of the larger organization of which you are a part has changed: you, some members of your management, and a multitude of followers, who are now viewed by many others as heretics.
Second, as the change you’ve implemented gains more and more acceptance and success, the keepers of the status quo will go to work feverishly resisting you. We’ve discussed reasons why this happens often in this blog: remember, much of it has to do with established experts not wanting to embrace a new way of thinking and doing that will make them novices, or some may believe themselves incapable of making the changes you are asking of them.
Think of your followers as a change virus you inject into your organization. The resistors are like antibodies who fight the virus in an attempt to ensure the existing culture survives.
Don’t fall into the trap of underestimating the resistors. They’ll use stealth and subterfuge. They know how to act engaged in your presence then revert to actively undermining your mission when you’re elsewhere. Regrettably, it seems the most entrenched and destructive resistors are skilled cultural chameleons.
This means resistance will not be easy for you to see. But make no mistake: your followers will see it every day. Some will wonder why you aren’t doing more to address it. While their frustration is understandable, they must learn that once the leader has done her work––the visioning, missioning, and planning––the change is mostly in the followers’ hands.
The Follower’s Choice
There is tipping point where followers facing persistent resistance must make a choice: either give up and assimilate back into the drift, or rise and take on the resistors. For the first year or two, followers are busy changing themselves and their fellow followers. During this time, aside from dealing with the ridicule all heretics must endure, they can ignore the resistors. But once this low hanging change fruit has been picked, the real work of followers begins. If the change is to continue and performance is to be sustained, the followers must find a way to engage and enroll the resistors.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled.
A heretic uprising is something a leader can miss if she is not on the lookout. Followers, like their resistor counterparts, are not stupid. They know that a visible, aggressive uprising will generate a backlash, so their uprising will also be stealthy––at least at the beginning. Keep your eyes open and your finger on the pulse of your organization so that the moment the uprising begins, you’re ready to do your part.
The Seeds of an Uprising
There are specific conditions that you must create and sustain that will make it easier for your followers to take the reins. If these conditions do not exist, they will almost certainly throw in the towel. You must:
- Regularly articulate your vision and commitment to it.
- Continually evoke the mission and its importance to the vision.
- Provide everything your followers need to see the mission as doable and within their control.
- Communicate confidence that the mission will happen.
- Acknowledge followers and everyone else who chooses to change.
- Celebrate improvements and performance milestones.
- Challenge the most influential and noisiest resistors.
Send the unmistakable message that a) resistance is futile; b) your patience with resistors has its limits; and c) ultimately anyone who is unable or unwilling to get onboard will be left behind.
No Committees, Please!
A common mistake you must avoid at this point is to sponsor some form of “change committee” or team. This is a surefire way for the leader to kill a change initiative.
Committees accomplish the opposite of change. If you want to delay a decision or degrade its quality, form a “blue-ribbon committee.” Prescribed teams and committees are appropriate tools for managing projects or programs, but a change initiative is neither of these.
If you create the conditions listed above, your followers will find a way to naturally come together without your sponsorship. A few of your most passionate followers will start to recognize that the change is now in their court and decide to take matters into their own hands.
These “core followers” understand there is strength in numbers and will form a pact to work together to assure that the change continues. Once they have some idea of what they might do to that end, their next step, if they’re savvy, will be to inform you of their existence.
Mentor, Do Not Direct
This is a critical moment in the change initiative. When they learn the uprising exists, many leaders have a tendency to step in and formally direct and market the group.
Resist this urge. Instead, continue to cultivate the conditions described above. You can discreetly mentor core followers, but formally launching or openly publicizing the group is a serious miscalculation. The heretical uprising will be most effective if the followers work surreptitiously.
The best support you can give is providing core followers a change leadership expert who can develop them into the leaders they must become in order to succeed. The first step for this “coach” is to train the core followers in the fundamental realizations, faculties, and skills they will need to battle the resistance.
Next week, part II of this post will explore how you as a leader should develop these core followers, the core followers’ next steps, and then ultimately, when and how to take on resistors.
For now, don’t lose heart. The resistance you’ve stirred means you’re doing something wonderfully right.