Before I turn to the challenges set out in the headline, let me start from the opposite end of the spectrum…

As a change consultant, I’m currently working with an organisation that has been extraordinary in implementing change that’s necessary for it to not only survive through the pandemic, but thrive.

In addition to a session with the directors, I’ve been working with their reports, who are carrying out change projects. It is amazing to see not only the unity they have created, but also how well they are marshalling their project data.

As well as developing a flair for lucid answers when challenged on certain points of the project, individuals are beginning to grasp where they are in relation to three, critical questions:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we need to get to?
  3. How will we know when we’ve succeeded?

Now, those questions are not new. But what is new in this field is to reframe them around principles of navigation, so that teams working on transformations understand the wealth of organisational data required for them to convincingly answer those questions.

On top of those core concerns, leaders invariably come up against two, powerful resisters in times of change: sceptics and cynics. In research I co-authored with Rich Stone, I defined those groups as follows:

  • Sceptics Truth seekers who ask tough questions, because they genuinely want convincing, factual, helpful answers.
  • Type-1 cynics Doom mongers and naysayers who are implacably opposed to change, because that’s how they’re wired.
  • Type-2 cynics Essentially good people who are hurting from past experiences. Perhaps they’ve been ignored, shut down, or have had credit stolen from them.

Learning how to differentiate between sceptics and cynics requires different strategies if you want to navigate your change successfully.

For example, if you present a true sceptic with a detailed report setting out why organisational change is necessary, with a costed, sketched-out roadmap, they will want to explore all the potential problems that could arise.

This may seem like negativity – but if you ask, “Well, was there anything good about it?” their ability to seek and think through the truth can also result in some reassuring, positive feedback, too - and ideas.

Type-2 cynics can be converted into sceptics if you take time to get to know them. Type-1 cynics are rarer than you think, but need a different management strategy.

To overcome resistance, it is crucial for leaders to understand their stakeholders. One organisation I worked with had a wraparound carpark, so I made sure that I’d come in through a different entrance every day. This enabled me to pick up the different conversational tones within the various teams dealing with the change effort.

Leaders must be similarly attuned to the sentiments in every corner of their organisation. Provide as many ways as possible for staff to give feedback on change – whether via group meetings, private one-to-ones, special email addresses, Surveymonkey questionnaires or even drop-in rooms where anonymous, written notes can be popped in a sealed box.

Remember that sceptics and cynics are not just silently suffering ground troops. They can be in positions of huge influence, from large peer groups, to senior people. Applying rigorous honesty to how you communicate with these individuals means having – at every stage of the change process – clear and comprehensive bearings on all the data you need to convincingly answer the three, core questions.

Voices from our community: Fiona Spillane FInstLM is an independent change consultant and an associate at Teleios Consulting.