“Go on, take the thorn out of the lion’s paw!”: Managing change fatigue and resistance
Anger, acting out and complaints of too much change, too soon… how do Change Managers turn the gift of complaints to their advantage?
Jane steels herself for the phone call.
Some stakeholders are furious about the change.
One person has posted on organisation’s social media tool. Their post is now attracting followers. Jane decides to take the conversation “off line”, and left a voicemail for the person earlier in the day. Now Jane waits.
The phone rings. Jane takes a breath and answers. The next few minutes are stressful, to say the least. The person on the other end of the line is wound up, and lets Jane know. Jane tries to remain calm. It’s not easy; Jane feels her heart race. The person invokes a furious rant about aspects of the change. Then raises questions about the decision-makers and rationale for the change. Jane draws out this anger and elicits the underlying reasons.
The person is furious, but as with all angry diatribes, the anger runs out of steam. Jane is non-judgemental. She respectfully and tentatively reflects the person’s point of view at appropriate times. Trust is starting to build, and candour replaces anger. The person shares an underlying problem: a recent life-threatening illness diagnosis in a family member. The current change is another layer of problem above this awful diagnosis. Jane feels the person’s pain and loss of control in their family domain. She understands the persons frustration with work changes. The person’s enormous personal stressor draws all coping resources.
The raw connection with this person is valuable to Jane. Jane turns the conversation back to the change, and to a constructive way forward. She thanks the person for sharing their vulnerability, and their feedback. She then commits to follow-up and making an action from the phone call. These calls are unexpectedly personal yet always challenging. Hard work is ahead — Jane can find useful workarounds or solutions, or manage expectations. Her leaders don’t always understand why Jane is “soft” with upset stakeholders. Aren’t these chats time-consuming? Do they reward “bad behaviours”? Jane disagrees. She considers the intangible cost of the person escalating their troubles to leadership. Or putting more venomous comments online, and attracting others to do the same. In Jane’s mind, she is winning over influential people one at a time.
Each project brings a new challenge. The change you are leading might have shortfalls. The change surfaces at the wrong time for many teams. Or the old chestnut: “Why weren’t we consulted?” Does your change has a perception that needs you to ‘spin’ it in the right direction? Are some of your stakeholders vocal and exhibit challenging behaviours? With experience you may enjoy these unique challenges. Even so, dealing with angry or change fatigued people on the day is not always easy or pleasant.
Angry people may vent, or behave in particular ways which keep everyone around them “off balance”. People suffering change fatigue may also display anger. But they may also be indifferent or helpless. If either group have escalated to you, see it as an opportunity. And not in a “Pollyanna-ish” way. This opportunity is pragmatic; it’s a chance to learn their perceptions about your change. Many people who have escalated to you often represent a larger group of others in a similar position. They may also have union affiliations, or the ear of leadership. If you can turn a passionate conversation into constructive solutions, you have “won”. What if you ignore this opportunity? When have you had a poor customer experience, then complained? What would happen if your complaints were ignored? Tends to increase your tension, doesn’t it? Your next steps depend on your circumstances and personality.
Each of your stakeholders may need a unique approach to de-escalation. It’s hard work. But the gentle art of de-escalation is worth learning for any change professional, project manager or business analyst.
A conflict management “art” for change professionals
The martial art of Aikido has a brilliant philosophy of non-violent conflict de-escalation. Feeling attacked by the other person? Aikido advocates “getting yourself off the line of attack” ¹as your first step. Instead, take a spirit of curiosity about the person. This helps you avoid taking any attacks personally. Attacks — either personal, or about your change — are about taking you off-balance. The person may also attack to test your mettle, or even just to see you suffer a little. If you see this as a behavioural pattern, it may help you not take things personally.
As you can see in the image below, Aikido is about blending with an opponent’s energy. If they push you, go with it. If they grab and pull you towards them, again go with it. Never clash; stay calm and use your opponent’s energy against them. Yielding is not being passive; it’s assertive, flexible and adaptive to your opponent. It is also directly, unflinchingly entering conflict — a principle known as irimi (entering). “The principle of Irimi is employed to avoid the attacking force and to position oneself to the opponent’s dead angle” ².
You can use circular movements to overextend your opponent. Once overextended, your opponent loses their balance. Their strength is dependent on their balance. If your opponent catches you off-guard, you learn to roll and breakfall. Thus your balance is taken temporarily, but you roll with the punches then regain your balance and composure. Eventually your opponent loses their balance, or runs out of steam. Conflict neutralised.
The concept of aiki in Aikido is about blending -not clashing or “fighting”. The mindset of an Aikido practitioner is one of flexibility, blending and complete calm. Aikido is a defensive martial art, yet it has a distinct ethic which applies to business relationships. Aikido’s end-game is to neutralise conflict, yet leave an “opponent” unharmed. Let’s apply this beautiful philosophy to another “gentle art”: Change Management.
Your “opponent” in Change Management may seem to be the angry stakeholder on the phone, or in the training room. Their “attacks” may feel personal. It is easy for your brain to “seize” in any moment of conflict. This is when your brain perceives a threat in the form of an “attacking opponent”. Your brain’s limbic system activates ³ in response to the perceived conflict ⁴. When this happens, you may trade responses and you may feel like you are in battle with your “opponent”. There is no “opponent” as a change professional, if you take one change to your thinking. Your “opponent” — if any — is you: losing your sense of composure during a difficult conversation. Aikido is counter-intuitive. When someone grabs your wrist or shoulder, it’s only instinctive to pull back, struggle or panic. You learn (over years of training) to relax and “step off the line of attack”. So too, we must remain relaxed, calm and present in our conversations with stakeholders.
Instead, take a spirit of curiosity about the person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. A colleague once said to me, “Allan, it’s hard to dislike someone when you understand their perspective.”
So in the beginning of any challenging conversations don’t trade arguments. You may think your calm response is logical, but it may aggravate the other person. Just listen and at appropriate times reflect your understanding. Your reflection may be incorrect, and your stakeholder sharply makes your mistake obvious. Like in Aikido, your “opponent” may throw you, or somehow take your balance. So “roll” with this unexpected event, dust yourself off and admit your mistake. Your “balance” is thereby regained.
If you put yourself in your stakeholder’s shoes, you can see how your non-resistant yet present approach is hard to “fight” against.
But they may find your non-resistant approach somewhat frustrating. You might come across like one of those blow-up dolls with a strong base. Someone hits the doll, and it bounces back like nothing happened. Even so, with careful listening and reflection, your stakeholder will see the effort you make to respect their views.
After time, your stakeholder’s high emotions and confrontational behaviour pattern may wane. Once your stakeholder’s strong emotions dissipate, you are in a better position to work out a constructive way forward. This approach is useful for “direct attacks”, where your stakeholder is transparent. How do you deal with stakeholders exhibiting passive aggression?
On passive aggression
Attacks aren’t always “direct” not overt. Some business environments inadvertently reward passive aggression. Passive aggression is harder to identify and challenge. Some stakeholders might chafe at having to adjust to the changes you propose. They overtly agree to supporting you. Yet a behavioural pattern emerges. They subject you to “death by one thousand cuts” — running late for meetings, snide remarks, and delays in anything you need.
“Procrastinating on a project, showing up late, or making offhand comments designed to upset people are common forms of low-level passive aggression… Sometimes you are confused because you suspect sabotage or obstruction, but they present a friendly or benign exterior. Discard the exterior and focus only on their actions and you will have a clearer picture. If they evade you and delay necessary action on something important to you, or make you feel guilty and leave you unsure why, or if they act harmfully but make it seem like an accident, you are most likely under a passive aggressive attack… At all cost, avoid entangling yourself emotionally in their dramas and battles. They are masters at controlling the dynamic, and you will almost always lose in the end.”
Robert Greene, Mastery, pg. 145
Most of us may be passive aggressive occasionally. Apologies follow if someone calls out certain behaviours. But don’t bet on everyone being apologetic. How many professionals get rewarded for their indirect approach to conflict?
While you can call their passive aggressive behaviour for what it is, they might smile at that moment then escalate. Or if they are insecure, your assertiveness results in more attacks. They have learned that their behaviour gets to you. Instead, be curious about their patterns. Be light-hearted and think about your own end-game — influencing effective change.
If anything, ensure you have a paper-trail of useful solutions and workarounds. Your paper-trail shows others your consistent, useful support of this stakeholder. In case your passive aggressive stakeholder is busy shaping perceptions in the background.
Finding your stakeholder’s “dead angle” (the sweet spot where they can’t attack you)
Earlier in this article, I quoted The Art of Aikido (page 98): “The principle of Irimi is employed to avoid the attacking force and to position oneself to the opponent’s dead angle” ². What does this mean for change professionals? It means you have taken a spirit of curiosity about your stakeholder’s context. So much so, that you’re completely immersed in checking your understanding. This empathic understanding extends to working on viable, constructive solutions with them. Or at least managing their expectations if no solution is clear. You have created a non-judgemental space for the stakeholder to vent. They cannot attack you, as you have offered no counter-argument. You could completely disagree with them, but they wouldn’t know it.
Psychologists and coaches train in Socratic questioning techniques ⁵. Socratic questioning is useful and effective in therapeutic situations ⁶. But you can apply this technique to brief conversations with your stakeholders. As you have already taken a spirit of curiosity about your stakeholder’s context, Socratic questioning naturally follows this. Socratic questioning is a way of questioning in a focussed, yet open manner. This style of questioning helps you elicit (or unpack) any assumptions, beliefs and feelings your stakeholder may have about your change. You can always practice a difficult stakeholder engagement with a colleague. If you are leading change, you might role-play a difficult stakeholder interaction with your Project Manager, Business Analyst or another trusted project team member. This way, you can practice your Socratic questioning. You may learn of potential answers to tricky stakeholder questions in doing so.
Another useful tactic which may help — “I couldn’t imagine”. You may accurately empathise with the person and “can imagine” their situation. If you say you “can imagine..”, then may angrily retort with a “No, you couldn’t…”. In their mind, their issue is unique and perhaps cannot be understood by anyone but them. No-one knows how they feel! This mis-step doesn’t help de-escalation.
But treating their situation as unique and hard for anyone to completely walk in the person’s shoes? Much better. Most of the problems people raise are completely understandable, but as their emotions run high use the “I couldn’t imagine…” tactic. It’s akin to treating their context with a sense of awe.
Some stakeholders can be intimidating. You may need a brief distraction to regain your composure. If so, use the act of writing down notes or pondering what is being said. This distraction also gives you the space to take a breath and remain calm.
With practice, your approach will develop and you discover useful techniques. Each technique helps you de-escalate, empathise or elicit/”unpack” stakeholder’s context.
Do you want to elevate your stakeholder de-escalation and questioning skills?
Consider brief and practical counselling skills courses. Learn valuable counselling micro-skills — then adapt them to your change practice.
Passion is a gift
De-escalation needs planning. Planning needs space. Even if you take an unexpected and intense phone call, take a quick breath and give yourself a moment’s space. This space helps you consider options and calm yourself. Another way to give yourself space is simply to listen. You don’t have to provide answers, or trade logical arguments with anyone yet.
If you have more time to plan, then do so. Aim to set up a time and place for the meeting (if possible). Aim to draw out as much of the person’s story and feelings about their experience as you can. You may experience professional or personal attacks. This is “normal” yet unpleasant. Let these insults go to the keeper.
The above image breaks down your planning for an optimal stakeholder engagement. Before your meeting, are you prepared and calm? During the meeting, are you ‘present’ with your stakeholder? Do you present as someone calm and interested in learning about the stakeholder’s context? Can you think of constructive, viable workarounds during your meeting? Or diplomatic ways to manage their expectations if no workarounds or clear solutions exist? Do you draw out and reflect the stakeholder’s views accurately? In short, can you transform their emotions (their passion) into a positive conclusion at the end of the meeting? Does the stakeholder feel like their concerns were taken seriously? Are there actions from the meeting? Can you commit to these actions?
So what is the “real” gift from the stakeholder’s intense meeting with you? An opportunity for you to co-design better outcomes with them. Maybe they have given you an insight into how you can help not only them, but hundreds or thousands of their colleagues. Is there an answer to add to your list of Frequently Asked Questions? Can you publish and distribute the answer to the whole community which your stakeholder belongs to? Have you done your homework after the meeting, and discovered a useful benefit in the future state? Can you involve your stakeholder in exploring this benefit more? Could you involve them in communicating this finding to their community?
Being heard and validated is powerful. An equally powerful next step: follow up and show a sense of progress after your conversation. In the face of progress, how can your stakeholder not feel heard and validated? And over time, you may have a strong ambassador for your change!
Your extra time and effort with this stakeholder is a terrific way to “take the thorn out of the lions paw” ⁷. You may have been the first person from any project team who has listened and understood the stakeholder’s plight and done something to help them.
Like firefighting professionals, should change professionals run towards “the heat” when others run from it? Complaints are a gift — turn complaints from one person into actionable, scalable artefacts that help the many. The martial art of Aikido provides a useful conflict management philosophy. This non-violent approach can benefit any business professional.
As change professionals, we don’t need to trade responses with upset stakeholders. Instead, we can “blend” with our stakeholder’s arguments and “roll” with their resistance. A genuine spirit of curiosity helps us blend and empathise with our stakeholders. This curiosity sets us up for Socratic questioning techniques.
Our intense meeting becomes a place to explore and learn from our stakeholders. Their insights may give rise to powerful artefacts which we can create, ideally in concert with our stakeholder. We can win over previously oppositional stakeholders. We need to ensure they are heard, demonstrate post-meeting progress and seek solution co-creation. This transforms every meeting into an opportunity to get us closer to influencing effective change.
Your call to action
How do you manage complaints, stakeholders acting out and change fatigue? How do we translate complaints and aggression into candid, constructive conversations? How can we elevate these conversations into positive outcomes?
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2. Ueshiba K. The Art of Aikido: Principles and Essential Techniques. Kodansha International; 2004.
3. Limbic System: How Brain Anatomy Affects Emotional Health — Dr. Axe. https://draxe.com/health/limbic-system/. Accessed November 29, 2020.
4. Neuroscience of Conflict Management — Neural Shifts — Diversity & Inclusion. https://neuralshifts.com/neuroscience-of-conflict-management/. Accessed November 29, 2020.
5. Sutton J. Socratic Questioning in Psychology: Examples and Techniques. Positive Psychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/socratic-questioning/. Published 2020. Accessed November 29, 2020.
6. Heiniger LE, Clark GI, Egan SJ. Perceptions of Socratic and non-Socratic presentation of information in cognitive behaviour therapy. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2018;58:106–113. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2017.09.004
7. Saint Jerome Extracting a Thorn from a Lion’s Paw (Getty Museum). https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/250709/master-of-the-murano-gradual-saint-jerome-extracting-a-thorn-from-a-lion’s-paw-italian-second-quarter-of-15th-century/. Accessed November 29, 2020.