10 Signs Your Company Is Resistant to Change

10 Signs Your Company Is Resistant to Change

By Matt Dallisson, 11/10/2023

Not every organization is eager to solve its problems. In the absence of an obvious performance crisis, leaders often clutch onto the status quo and underweigh its risks. This type of resistance to change can show up in many forms, some of them hard to decipher. Here are 10 signs your company may be trying to slow you down, from wherever you’re trying to lead in the hierarchy.

1. A task force is being assigned to the problem.

A small, intrepid team of reformers is one thing; indeed, it’s a thing we often recommend to accelerate action. Most task forces, it turns out, do not fit this profile. How can you tell? If you’re being asked to rely on a structure or process that lacks status, legitimacy, or decision rights — or the sponsorship of someone who has any of the above— then it’s unlikely to help you make a difference.

2. You’re being thanked for your time and effort.

If you suspect you’re being indulged and dismissed, then you probably are. By the way, this is not the same thing as being disagreed with, which is a perfectly acceptable response to wherever your diagnostics lead you. Your obligation as a changemaker is to make the persuasive case for your ideas. Your colleagues’ obligation is to engage with them in good faith, not to uncritically agree with you.

3. People doubt whether the organization (really) has a problem.

Be prepared for some of your colleagues to push back on your premise that the company has a problem. Hard truths are, by definition, difficult to face; this is particularly true for data that suggests cultural issues such as a lack of full inclusion. Stay strong. Be fluent in the evidence you gather today that the problem truly exists — and in resonant stories about the price the organization is paying for it.

4. You’re asked to respond to the grave concerns of unidentified critics.

These exchanges often start with some variation on, “As your friend, I think you should know what people are saying.” This is usually a tactic to keep you in check rather than empower you with helpful information. Don’t take the bait and react to rumor and hearsay. Encourage your critics to reveal themselves so that you can engage directly with their concerns, which may very well be valid. Collaboration happens in daylight.

5. The specter of “legal issues” is being invoked.

The antidote to this one is to work directly with the legal team, which is often made up of people who are far more creative, flexible, and solutions-oriented than the detractors who are using their name. Lawyers are rarely the risk-intolerant killjoys they’re made out to be by non-lawyers, so partner with them early.

6. Your colleagues point out all the other problems that need to be solved.

This response assumes there’s some kind of measurable limit on a firm’s capacity to absorb positive change — and you’re getting dangerously close to that line. People tend to underestimate their company’s capacity to adapt to a better reality (as well as the true cost of continued inaction). The problem you surface deserves a rapid response that reflects the frustration, the mediocrity, and, in some organizations, the real pain of the status quo.

7. You keep hearing about a future state where the conditions for change will be much, much better.

This may be the most common expression of resistance we see: the fantasy that it’s going to be easier to change things at some point in the future. In our experience, this is almost never the case, and the opposite is usually true. The clarity and momentum you have right now are tremendous assets, but they’re also perishable ones. In most cases, the “fierce urgency of now” wins the day, particularly when the success and well-being of the people around you are on the line.

8. The timeline for action is growing.

This is another common delay tactic, a proposed antidote to the concerns expressed in items 6 and 7. Your diagnosis is embraced at a conceptual level, but the proposed timetable for change is long and vague. Treat this development as an existential threat. When it comes to solving mission-critical problems, the right time to take action is now.

9. Your colleagues think they can wait you out.

Management thought leader Earl Sasser calls this “kidney stone management” — the assumption that this, too, shall pass. Make it clear that you’re not going anywhere, preferably with a smile. If you’re not the boss, then show up in her office with a cup of coffee, just the way she likes it, every morning until you get her to engage. That move, by the way, has never failed us.

10. You keep hearing, “We’ve already tried that.”

The company may have already wrestled with some version of the problem you’ve surfaced, with little to show for it beyond a legacy of frustration and cynicism. If so, do your homework and learn what you can from whatever went wrong. Regardless, context changes, including the very material context of your willingness to lead on these issues. You haven’t tried before, which is going to make all the difference.

This content was originally published here.