Organizational agility is not just a matter of process and technology. It’s also about the people who participate in those processes and use that technology. So even the best process change and technology adoption won’t do you a whole lot of good if your people retain their non-agile habits, attitudes, and workplace culture.
Every leader therefore faces the issue of what to do with people who don’t embrace change. Do you fire them? Try to work around them? Browbeat them into accepting the inevitable?
This is a non-trivial issue for leaders who aspire to be agents of organizational change, because your people will judge you by how you treat their peers. Do it right and your leadership currency will increase in value. Do it wrong and it will become more difficult to manage everyone in your organization.
So what do you do with conscientious objectors?
First, it’s important to differentiate between plain old, ordinary objectors and conscientious objectors. Plain objectors don’t want to change because they don’t want to change. They find all change inherently problematic because it’s uncomfortable and requires mastery of new practices. Any objections they explicitly pose to the specific types of change you are attempting to institute are just smokescreens. They will never favor any change unless it’s an acknowledgement that they were right all along and everyone else should change to be just like them.
Objectors have to go. Any successful change leader will tell you this. They use euphemisms like “the need for fresh thinking,” but they are talking about getting problematic people out of the way. The wrong people in the wrong position can make change 20 times harder than it has to be and less than half as successful. So one of the prices you pay for becoming more agile is a bit of staff turnover.
"Conscientious objectors" (let’s call them “COs”) are a very different breed. Three attributes in particular tend to distinguish them from their less desirable counterparts:
- Their objections are clearly grounded in sincere concern for the company and their co-workers. Those concerns are couched in terms like “quality,” “risk,” “customers,” “team,” and “brand.”
- They present their objections logically and passionately to upper management, in stark contrast to the grumbling that non-conscientious objectors do.
- Their passion, intelligence, and competency make them highly respected in the workplace.
This last attribute is particularly important. COs tend to be workplace leaders, regardless of whether their titles make them officially so. This makes the stakes even higher when it comes to managing their role in your organization’s agile transformation. In fact, if you can convert a CO, he or she can become an especially powerful catalyst for change.
From obstacle to ally
Leaders seeking to convert COs from obstacles to allies should keep a few best practices in mind:
Listen and respond. Without fully realizing it, change leaders often have an unconscious inclination to simply steamroll any perceived obstacles. COs, however, are very good at pointing out obstacles that require more than just steamrolling. By listening to them and responding thoughtfully, you can avoid many of the bad decisions that “true believers” tend to make.
Invite them into “the room.” Sometimes it’s smart for leaders to let COs participate in higher-level strategy sessions. This lets the CO openly debate their position with others, so he or she feels empowered, and so the leader doesn’t get locked into a directly adversarial relationship with the CO. Nine times out of ten, the CO’s input will improve decisions along the way, making for a better outcome.
Convince with results. As long as agility is theoretical, rather than actual, COs will always be able to argue their side. But if you can show them how something got done faster while also getting done better -- and if you can make that a shared learning moment rather than an I-told-you-so event -- the facts themselves will win the hearts and minds of COs.
Close the conversion deal. Eventually, if you stay properly engaged with a CO, a moment of truth will arrive. It is at that point that a good change leader will shift from incremental chips to wholesale conversion. Ask the CO if she or he finally trusts you and believes in the change you are bringing about. Offer an opportunity to become an active and vocal agent of that change.
COs who refuse at that point essentially forfeit their “C” and become mere unreasonable objectors who deserve to be identified as such. If your timing is right and you’ve properly judged your CO, however, you will make their conversion complete. By doing so, you will have created a powerful workplace ally in your agility efforts. As any leader who has attempted to transform an organization’s processes and culture knows, such allies are absolutely critical to success.