Embracing change dissent

Kim Woods
Kim Woods | April 08, 2021
Embracing change dissent

When we listen to, and embrace, change dissent a few things happen. Firstly, other people who are witness to your response will learn that it is ok to voice concerns about change, have them addressed, and that this won’t be punished by the organization. In times of otherwise high uncertainty, providing staff certainty on the fairness of our processes is crucial. To aid us in responding appropriately, it’s important we see the upsides of embracing dissent. Here are a few ways in which change dissent benefits us directly:

  1. Your change plans may just get better. There is always the possibility that information at lower levels of the organization has not made its way up to us in time for us to act on it. Change dissent can contain important information, either about processes that will be affected by change, or, at the minimum, how people are feeling in various sections of the organization.

  2. Addressing concerns shows brave leadership. Open dissent means that, by engaging with it, you have a chance to demonstrate how you stand behind your ideas. Making yourself accountable to your staff demonstrates that you are willing to be available and willing to front up to address their concerns.

  3. You, or your line managers and their managers, learn things necessary for implementation - such as whether people think they have the skills and resources to successfully navigate the change and what more support might be required.

  4. As has been said above, publicly addressing concerns gives you a method of providing a narrative to people desperately wanting one. In times of change, people look to strong leaders to provide guidance and assurance. Sending out your message of hope and confidence in the change provides a narrative that others can help to continue.

Horns and halos

Sometimes change dissent comes from places you’d least expect. A previously star employee who isn’t as keen as you thought they would be. A strong performer in the senior leadership team suddenly seems to be playing for a different side. Why is this?

Putting aside any ideas of political maneuvers, dissent from employees can be a sign they are actually thinking deeply about the change. That they want their opinion to be heard, and care about the success of the change. Not all dissenters are intentionally resisting, but they might require a higher level of proof to be convinced. If we engage with these people in fair discussions, winning them to our side can be all the more powerful than if we’d never had to contest the idea at all. When convinced or converted, they can be your biggest supporters and change champions.

The process of sense-making, the act of making sense of the new change, happens at different rates for different people. The approach of some organizations is that 'everyone must be on the bus now because we are leaving'. While designed to create a sense of urgency, these messages can be alienating to those people needing more time to process. If you don't want to lose more of your workforce than needed, it’s kinder and wiser to practice patience and answer questions.

One tool for helping to relate to the concerns of employees can come from design thinking and human-centered design. The use of personas and journey mapping can help to raise awareness among managers of what their employees may be thinking and feeling, and what the impacts of that upon the business could be. Without this awareness, in the events of a busy workday, they may miss the opportunity to address key concerns. Even when answers are given, if managers don’t approach change with the correct level of empathy, this often leads to lackluster answers to employees. This can hamper change efforts, communication and implementation to the lower levels of your organization.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! The good news is, the next time you’re faced with opposition, you don’t need to fear it, but see it as an opportunity. There is a lot we can learn when we listen. One of the biggest equations to get right is how we communicate before, during and following change efforts. Joyous can help with striking that balance between getting your message out, and encouraging everyone in the organization to take part in the change effort. If this is a challenge for you, we’d love to help!

All the best for your next change project!