The dance of change: Build relationships to avoid resistance

Tom has recently accepted a new leadership role for a large financial firm. He is excited about the possibilities and has already considered changes he’d like to make based on his interview experience with people at different levels within the organization.

His soon to be direct reports are excited about Tom’s energy, experience and capacity to lead. Many have expressed a desire for change, recognizing that they are not doing their best work as a team within the organization. Processes are antiquated. Roles and responsibilities are not in alignment with the vision and mission of the organization, etc.

It appears that everyone is ready for a fresh start. It appears that everyone is ready to welcome Tom into the organization and support his lead in change efforts….Until he shows up!

As soon as Tom begins to recommend changes, he is faced with strong resistance from the very people who identified the need. He is the target of anger and frustration. He finds little cooperation from those he assumed he could count on.

This is a common scenario we find in our executive coaching work with leaders.

What is happening? Did Tom misunderstand the desire for him to be a change agent; to lead the “dance of change?” Were his direct reports misrepresenting their perception of the need for change? Were the senior leaders out of touch with the organization?

These are reasonable questions to ask. What we have learned to appreciate is the importance of timing for any change initiative. Tom’s success in initiating change will only happen when he takes the time to build relationships and understand the organizational history and dynamics first.

His success will come when he is able to engage others in the planning and implementation of change.

What we often forget in our eagerness to get things done is that successful change happens through people. And even when we desire change, there is also resistance. A Dilbert cartoon depicts the dynamic well. “Change is great. You go first.”

Executive coaching

We suggest to any new leader that he or she take a few months to focus on listening to employees. It is important to understand and appreciate the dance that is already going on within the organization. We coach him or her to appreciate that it is worth the investment to build relationships and trust before initiating organizational change. Initiating change without buy in feels like a criticism of the work that has already been done. And while employees and leaders may think about the need for change, when faced with the reality, their initial response will be resistance.

At the same time, we suggest to the organization that this new leader will not offer his or her opinion for the first several months, unless asked. As he builds trust and relationships, others will join in his efforts.

Kevin Cashman writes in “Leadership from the Inside Out” that “positive change requires letting go of the old patterns and taking a fresh approach. It demands going beyond our preconceived ideas.”

Cashman illustrates this notion with a story about a teacher and a student: “A student who thought he had it ‘all figured out’ would visit his teacher each day for a personal lesson about life. Despite the teacher’s attempts to share her life experience, the student always resisted. One day the teacher took a different approach….The teacher brought in a huge pot of piping hot tea. She not only filled the student’s cup, but once the cup was full, she continued to pour…”

The student became quite upset and the teacher responded: “If you want to receive my tea, you must keep your cup empty.”

If Tom wants to initiate change that will be sustainable, he needs first to establish relationships that invite others to let go of the familiar dance. That’s risky business! No matter how much we profess to like change, the natural response to change includes resistance.

In facilitating a recent leadership retreat, a colleague and I asked the participants to consider a change they had made that was particularly challenging. We invited them to think of a person or persons who guided, mentored and encouraged them. In a large group we asked them to share the characteristics and qualities that the person manifested that helped them to make the change they needed to make. Included were the following:

  • Belief in the possibilities.
  • Belief in me!
  • Encouragement.
  • Humor.
  • Listening.
  • Space for letting go.
  • Compassion.
  • Preparation.
  • Empathy.
  • Coaching/supporting.
  • Keeping the vision in sight.
  • Reminders of past success.
  • Ability to connect the dots.
  • Reminders that “I” need to change.
  • Excitement for change.

As Tom continues in his leadership role, he will provide the support that others need in order to effectively transition through change. He will appreciate the investment he is making in relationships and he will find, in the process, others who will join him as teachers in the dance of change.

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute of Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit

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