Overcoming Resistance to Change

Overcoming Resistance to Change

A few weeks ago, on our “Talk Retail to Me” podcast, Parker Avery’s change leader Kathi Toll interviewed change management expert Carrie Habel. The two retail veterans discussed how company leaders can understand and address their teams’ and their own resistance to change. This week’s blog post reveals some highlights of their conversation.

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Success Still Needs Change

Carrie’s initial foray into the change management world was several years ago at Limited Brands (now L Brands). The company’s founder, Lex Wexner, wanted a common way of operating across all brands: Limited, Express, Bath & Body Works, and Victoria’s Secret. The initiative’s goal was to create a consistent, exceptional experience for internal and external customers. This entailed a common set of guiding principles, coaching models, hiring practices, business analytics, and merchandise management across all the brands. Decidedly, a pretty big challenge.

Carrie was involved in the development and implementation of many of the operating system changes. This initiative introduced a common playbook to all the brands. As such, it involved telling four independent, successful retail brands they would change how they work, what tools they will use, how to hire, how to lead teams, and other new ways of operating. This project was big, with the overall process and system changes across those four brands, impacting a lot of people.

Understanding Leadership Resistance

In leading this project, there was significant resistance to change in the leadership ranks. Most people don’t like change, and successful leaders usually don’t like to be told what to do. Regardless of how great the new processes and systems were to the people who instigated the project, the impacted associates and managers were much more resistant than anticipated. The challenges experienced, such as influencing company leadership, strengthened Carrie’s approach to navigating and mitigating change resistance.

The most challenging moment was discovering that one executive leader was not aligned with the project objectives. At the time, the brand was highly successful and had already implemented many new tools and processes. As such, this executive was really invested in the brand’s established culture and the ways it operated. Essentially, they didn’t feel the need to change. As a non-executive at the time, Carrie had to influence up and first attempt to communicate what the benefits would be. Yet, this approach didn’t work.

So, Carrie dove deeper into why there was so much resistance to change. In doing so, she uncovered a fear of losing the brand’s successful culture. The change management approach became a lot about acknowledging those fears and feelings and accepting them. Further, the team needed to understand and embrace the direction in which the company was moving. It was critical that this executive understood why they needed to be on board. This approach wasn’t easy; it wasn’t a single conversation. As such, addressing this resistance to change entailed a lot of communication and involvement of multiple levels in the organization.

Change Resistance and Vulnerability

During the COVID pandemic, there was definitely more vulnerability and resistance to change. In a way, it has become the “new norm.” It is not comfortable for people to be vulnerable, but it is becoming easier to have conversations about it. People are just tired of expressing how hard things are. Over this last year, there have been many lessons learned, but vulnerability is definitely one of them. The load of cognitive, emotional, and physical stress really takes a toll on people. Best performers aren’t going to be performing at their top when faced with such massive change.

It is a challenging time for leaders because they are also experiencing those same feelings. It’s almost like trauma happening on a daily basis. So leaders must be able to manage themselves first and then manage their teams, be strong, and be a sounding board. Situational leadership has become crucial because everyone is experiencing significant personal change at different levels. As a leader, knowing what people are going through personally and professionally has been really taxing. Acknowledg