Unconventional Ways for Leaders to Manage Resistance to Change

“Too often our changes are technically perfect – the boxes are neatly arranged, columns add up, procedures are in place – but we fail to acknowledge the human aspect.” William Bridges

Embrace ChangeONE THING THAT should be apparent if you work in the digital marketing industry is that excelling at your core competency is not enough. Being an expert on the technical and strategic side of managing client paid search accounts or pulling together a strategic SEO plan to improve organic search results will only be successful if you also manage the human side of the equation. Taking the human side of things into account early on in a relationship is critical to success both internally and externally and is the foundation for building trust and engagement.

Regardless whether this new relationship is a transition between a client’s in-house online marketing program being outsourced to an agency or a client switching agencies or the implementation of a new software platform, there is a significant amount of change management involved even before you can begin the transition. With any amount of change also comes a certain amount of resistance. This post will focus on the Cycle of Change, some key tips on how to identify and join the resistance in order to succeed and focus on some of the types of resistance I have encountered from an agency perspective.

Resistance & the Cycle of Change

There is a certain level of change that takes place when a client hires an agency or a software partner for the first time or switches agencies/partners for the first, second or third time. This changing of the guard may cause a level of resistance that needs to be embraced. Yes, I said embrace the resistance – it’s the only way to manage the change successfully.

It is outside the scope of this article to cover every detail of change and resistance but ultimately if you find yourself in either of the aforementioned scenarios there will be varying levels of resistance that you may encounter in your new partnership. Initially at the beginning of the engagement the client and its new partner will be at different stages of change. By using the Cycle of Change it is easy to put into perspective where you are compared to where your client is in the first days/weeks/months of the relationship. The Cycle of Change is a management tool that is divided into the following 6 segments:

1. Random Incidents – little information for the need for change.
2. Recognition – recognizing a problem and the need for change.
3. Initial Actions – taking the first steps to initiate change.
4. Implementation – discovery period of new ideas to manage change.
5. Integration – making new ideas the standard way of doing business.
6. Waning Activity – reevaluates the new standards and makes the necessary changes for sustainability.

Typically when a software contract is signed there has already been some level of Random Incidents and Recognition of a problem for which a change on the client side is in order. In the initial stages of the relationship it is critical to fully understand where your clients Senior Management – typically the decision makers – thinks they are along the cycle and where your day-to-day contacts – typically the ones responsible for using the new software – are along the same cycle. Usually they are not at the same stage in the cycle and that is the perfect recipe for resistance.

One example of this is when Senior Management hires purchases a new software package and its services to increase online revenue, but the Marketing Team is at odds internally with IT and Merchandising. Hiring or switching agencies or even implementing a new software application is not the problem from the Marketing Teams point of view. Fixing the internal struggles first, before adding outside sources to the mix will make the agency or software more effective.

The disconnect between management and marketing will make it difficult for the new agency or software provider to effectively implement its strategy. The Marketing team may resist certain parts of a new strategy because it has already tried the proposed tactics before and failed due to internal bureaucracy beyond the new vendor’s control. Or they may feel that they could do the job just as well as the agency if the internal issues were resolved.

In either case there are several types of resistance to look out for including, confusion, denial, sabotage, easy agreement and silence. Understanding where the client is along the cycle of change will better prepare you for anticipating what type of resistance you will encounter. And even though you, as the agency, are supporting the client with their best interests in mind, you will always encounter some level of resistance. When this occurs, according to Rick Maurer *, there are five basic touchstones to use as a reference point and to keep you and the client on the same page moving along the cycle of change at the same pace. Those touchstones are:

• Maintain Clear Focus
• Embrace Resistance
• Respect those Who Resist
• Relax
• Join with the Resistance

These touchstones are regarded as unconventional ways of dealing with resistance since we tend to only look at problems from our perspective and do not dive deep enough under the surface to understand the true root of the issues. I agree that these may be the unconventional ways of managing resistance, but the conventional ways of dealing with resistance hardly ever work. So the next time you find yourself in a situation where you have resistance either internally or externally instead of giving in or applying force to get those who resist to agree with you, try to see things from their perspective and find common ground in order to move ahead along the cycle of change together.

* The Cycle of Change, the examples of resistance and the five touchstones are from the brilliant mind of Change Management Expert Rick Maurer and his book Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Why 70% of All Changes Still Fail–and What You Can Do About It. I can hardly do the book and his advice for dealing with change and resistance its due justice in a blog post so I highly recommended you find yourself a copy and read for yourself.

Additional Resources:

Rick Maurer & Associates

Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change


Matt LeVeque is the Service Product Manager at Monetate. He is a Senior Member of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and recently completed Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business Certificate in Customer Experience Program. He is a Registered Yoga Teacher, an avid cyclist and recommends living by Velominati Rule #6 - Free your mind and your legs will follow.

Posted in Change Management, Digital Marketing, Leadership, Process, Transition Tagged with: , , ,

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