When talking about resistance to change the picture that is painted is often the one of the individual (whether a line manager, a supervisor or back office employee) being very vocal about not agreeing with a change that the organization is going to implement.
Being vocal is only one of the options, as there is a more subtle type of resistance: the passive-aggressive one. This is the case of the manager that states to be on board with the implementation of the new ERP system and that keeps on using the old one. When questioned about the contradictory behaviour the answer is “Who? Me! Using the old system?! No, not a chance. You are mistaken”.
In business we have to be careful, especially when implementing change, before going to an employee (regardless the level) and confronting him/her with what are assumptions of passive/aggressive behaviour.
I have worked as a legal professional for years and carried out thorough investigations on alleged misconducts (note the operative word alleged). In most cases these investigations did not lead anywhere as the behaviour of the employee turned out to ne perfectly justifiable by elements / circumstances that were not known by those who stated “these people are dragging their feet!”.
What can we do when there is doubt that a key employee is not on board with the initiative and that is adopting a passive aggressive behaviour?
a) Assess whether there is a behavioural patters – for example, the change initiative consists in the implementation of a new payroll system. The Head Of Payroll pulls out of critical meetings at the last minute, does not take part to key training on several occasions, does not communicate with the team.
b) Determine if this pattern has objective foundations – you have to determine if your is just a suspicion or if there is evidence that something is not right and that the employee in question is actually being passive aggressive.
For example check if the Head of Payroll of our example misses all or most the weekly meetings to report on the progress of his/her team on the implementation of the new payroll system. In some cases this behaviour is not so clear cut, so you will have to be very careful at identifying potential evidence of the passive aggressive behaviour that can disrupt the success of the change initiative.
It is advisable to talk to your legal department or with HR to get some pointers on potential legal implications.
Beware: you are not Sherlock Holmes and this is not a witch hunting exercise. An investigation may end up in nothing as there may be no evidence that the alleged passive-aggressive behaviour is in-fact real. There may have been a couple of instances when the Head of Payroll dod not turn up for the weekly meeting and that are completely justified – e.g. s/he was off sick due to surgery. For privacy reasons certain information is not freely disseminated around the company.
c) Speak with the individual – the key is to have a chat that is aimed at determining if our suspicions of passive-aggressive resistance is correct or not. The person that initiates this chat has to be a skilled communicator: the manager that is allegedly passive-aggressive will be very likely very defensive and will deny the allegations.
Be careful as your tone and body language matter: don’t accuse a person, simply have a chat in which you outline that you have noticed a pattern – e.g. s/he has missed the last three weekly meetings in a row and you have not received any data with regards to the progress of the change initiative. This is causing delays and having a detrimental impact on the project.
Ask for explanations in a very unbiased way.
d) Make sure to set expectations for the future: depending on the answers that you get, set what you expect in the future.
For example, if the employee states that s/he was super busy and that has not had the time to take part to those meetings set the standards of behaviour for the future. Ask the manager to delegate this task to someone in the team or to make sure that the information is promptly provided. Agree what is a suitable way forward. Point the attention of the delays in the project and why you need the employee’s collaboration.
Take into consideration that the explanation that you get may be real or partially real. In my +15 years’ experience managers tend to blame the change for a higher instability and workload. In some cases it is true that the workload has increased. But in some cases this is a justification for the passive-aggressive behaviour.
Keep the HR and the legal departments updated on the content of the conversation and on what was agreed.
e) No improvement? – if after this meeting you do not see any improvement – e.g. the Head of Payroll keeps on skipping the weekly meetings, pulling out at the last minute, not sending in the information, not delegating someone of the team to take part to it – it is definetely time to involve HR officially and go for a more firm route.
Take into consideration that resistance to change does not mean that the employee that is not agreeing in compliance with our expectations has to be dismissed or leave the company.
In most cases they just want to be heard and it is possible to find a solution that is a win/win for both parties.
If an employee is going to lose his/her job as a consequence of the change initiative some resentment towards the organisation is understandable . However, communication, training and support can help the employee to transition to his/her next stage of the career. Compassion does not mean that the employee is justified in being disruptive or adopting behaviours that are going to derail the change initiative, especially if those individuals are in key positions.
Managing people’s behaviours is not easy but a great leader has to have the tools to do this in an effective way to achieve successful change. This means having tough and unpopular conversations at times.
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