Elaine Varelas Offers Insight on Teams Resistant to Change

Have you acquired a team resistant to change? Elaine Varelas weighs in.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I recently acquired a team that can’t seem to let go of the past. They cling to old meeting rituals and inside jokes from before I was team lead. I felt I needed to make a clean break, so I implemented a new meeting process and suggested that the inside jokes felt exclusionary to others. I was met with a lot of resistance, and now I think they all resent me. Was I wrong to shake things up?

A: The issues that you’re dealing with are often found in organizations that have gone through mergers and acquisitions or any kind of significant change. One of your goals should be trying to create a new team in a positive way that recognizes the transition that everyone is going through. This should not be a negative dismissal of the old ways— recognize the value in the old things while acknowledging the greater potential of the new. Think of it as toasting the great things the team experienced in the past and then saying goodbye. Some organizations will even stage a symbolic “ceremony” to mark the transition; for example, the paperwork from the old process might be shredded followed by a “christening” of the new methodology. A wholesale elimination isn’t always necessary—or advisable. Add some new elements, but keep valuable things from the past. Determine what will stay and benefit the team as it moves forward and what should go. Helping people develop resiliency by learning how to manage change is a demonstrated organizational need.

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There will always be aspects of a group of people that feel exclusionary to some; your job is to play up the more supportive, inclusive things you see happening. Reward and recognize people who embrace your new initiatives, while minimizing focus on those who have their heels dug in. Sometimes these people are strong personalities with great influence over the team. In this case, speak to individuals privately—these are not the people you want to negatively comment on in larger groups. In a one-on-one, acknowledge that other team members tend to follow this person’s lead and indicate that you would welcome their support in this transition.

Let’s look at why you wanted to make a clean break. Why did you feel the need for a change? Did you throw out something valuable and important to the team without recognizing its value? Did you make the change simply as a power move? Your motivations are important here. You ask if it was wrong to shake things up. No, not necessarily—but changing everything overnight is next to impossible and not always a wise choice. A gradual transition is most often a better approach. Your decision-making process likely contributed to the team’s reaction, too. Leaders lead in a lot of different ways. They influence or they command, and it sounds like you implemented a process without input from the team. People are less apt to follow if they haven’t had any input in the change as opposed to when they feel like they’ve been given an opportunity to voice their opinion or raise any issues. Talking to people first might be a good strategy for you. Brainstorm, either as group or one on one, to determine what works and what doesn’t.

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When you take charge of an existing team, you want to do two things: recognize the positives that got them where they are and build their understanding of the direction you want to take going forward. If you continue to sense resentment and resistance, you may need to roll the changes back a bit: “I recognize that I went overboard trying to change too many things at once. I’d like to focus on what works well, and let you know how much I value what you’ve done in the past that made you successful. But let’s look at some of the new things I’d like to introduce that I think can take us to the next level.” The team got where they are for a reason, and you became the team leader for a reason—balance their proven success with your innovation and vision.

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