How to break through barriers to change

August 29, 2018

‘No, not that one!’ my four-year-old shouts from his bed when I’m getting his clothes out for the day.


On the inside I’m about to explode. On the outside I’m showing my best impression of understanding-mummy-who-isn’t-getting-desperate and ask him, calmly:

“Okay, sweetie, not the red jumper, not the blue one and no t-shirt either… you need to wear something so what would you like?”

I will never forget my surprise when I tried asking him for the first time and it actually worked. I had already given up hope for that day.

“First I want to eat. Then I want to wear my Cars t-shirt,’ he answered. Yes! He’s happy, I’m happy.


Hitting a brick wall

This is actually quite similar to many situations that happen in the workplace. Imagine the scene: You’ve produced a thorough plan to ensure your department can make the desired steps to improve efficiency and get rid of a few bureaucratic procedures. You have asked for input beforehand from a number of employees. Next, you present your plan in a meeting and what happens? All you get are moans and criticism: ‘That’ll never work’ is basically the message. It’s the same story every time and the same people who get in the way of achieving change.


One of the biggest misunderstandings here is that we feel like the resistance is something inherent in others. It’s your employees or your colleagues that are resisting your plans.

  • They don’t react in the way you would like them to.
  • They are being tricky.
  • They put up barriers against innovation.
  • They’re clearly resisting, right? While you want to get ahead so badly.




But what is happening to you while all this is going on? Aren’t you resisting their reactions as much as they’re resisting your plans?


Resistance can be a two-way street

You can probably explain perfectly well why it annoys you: you want to move on, make things better. They will benefit from it in the end, their jobs might even be at stake if you don’t make this change…

The reasons for resistance can always be brought back to a fear of losing something or a strong desire to reach something new. As for your own resistance, you can often define it quite easily. It makes perfect sense.

The funny thing is, the same is true for their resistance. Like you, they have their fears and desires. They just aren’t as obvious to see, because all you see is their defence mechanisms: putting their foot down, being tricky, trying to stall things.


Ask the right questions

If you want them to come onboard, you will have to find out what these ‘tricky people’ want or need.

 Behind their ‘We’ve tried this a hundred times before’ you might find they fear becoming invested and then being disappointed (again). Or they want to try out a completely new approach, because they want to develop themselves.

Knowing these fears or desires creates an opening to incorporate them in your discussions about the new plans. They may contain some valuable information to help transform your plans into reality. Bringing these fears or desires to the surface, means you can turn their resistance into constructive contributions.

It comes down to the following five steps:


1. First of all, repeat what they say, using their literal words

As in the earlier example, you feedback: ‘Okay, you say this’ll never work…’

It’s the simplest way to show that you’ve heard them and taken them seriously. You acknowledge what they’ve said, which puts people more at ease. They no longer feel the need to repeat their point of view.


2. Then turn the focus round and ask about what they (do) want

‘And what would you like to have happen?’

You’re inviting them to think along with you, to give you a clue of what’s behind their resistance to your plans. It’s more useful to take on board ‘testing the plan first’ than ‘you don’t get us’. You may need to help shift their focus more than once to get to a desired outcome instead of a problem. Hold on, it pays off in the end.


3. Repeat their answer, literally again

Again, acknowledge what’s being said. And moreover: confirm it to help them take in what they’ve just said. Resist the urge to add in any of your own words, since it is clearly a sensitive matter and you never know what might trigger a more defensive reaction instead of cooperation.


4a. If what they say simply isn’t possible, say that and go back to step 2

If need be, you can explain why this isn’t possible for you/the organisation. For example: ‘Keeping this the way it is isn’t going to work; we have set out a growth strategy and we are dedicated to making it happen. So, knowing that, what would you like to have happen then?’  


4b. If what they say is possible, explain how you will incorporate their contribution

In this way, you start negotiating how your desires can come together. You suggest what you think you can do with their input and give them a chance to react to this as well.


5. Check if you’re on the same page

It’s so tempting to stop here! Often this step gets overlooked but it makes the difference between ‘asking for input’ (and doing your own thing with it, a Change 2.0 approach) and ‘creating a desired outcome together’ (a Change 3.0 approach).

Even asking: ‘Is that okay for you or is there anything else?’ can be enough to explicitly check for real commitment.

If it turns out not to have been enough, start over.


Check yourself

Like with my four-year-old, you will have to manage your own state and emotions to be able to do this. Every time you get a ‘tricky’ reaction, you are being pulled back into your own resistance, which you will either have to set aside for the time-being or deal with it first. You may need to ask yourself what you would like to have happen, knowing that others may not just go along with your plans.

The good news is, following these simple steps does work nine times out of ten. And, as a bonus, you ‘train’ people to take ownership of what they do want, as much as what they don’t want. If you keep putting the focus on what they do want when things aren’t going the way they’d like, you’ll see that they will start doing this unprompted.

Complaining doesn’t come free anymore. You convey the message: ‘We will take you seriously but it requires you to go beyond telling us what doesn’t work as well’. As long as you’re willing to go along with them within your boundaries… like letting them have their breakfast first.



About the authors

Wendy & MaaikeWendy Nieuwland and Maaike Nooitgedagt are the authors of the best-selling Dutch business book, Change 3.0, which has been translated and updated for the UK business audience. Based on 7 Essential Principles, Change 3.0 demonstrates how leaders and managers can create and sustain lasting change within their organisation



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