Reversing the Polarity: Managing Workplace Change Resistance

Reversing the Polarity

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a 2012 social psychology book examining human moral foundations, and how people’s differences in prioritizing these foundations have helped create our enormous political divide. This got me thinking about dealing with divisions in ad agency cultures. How do we shift people’s thinking so everyone gets on board with changes and initiatives for growing our businesses? We start by recognizing the differing perspectives of our employees.

Change is difficult for most people. Announce a change in your workflow system, or an alteration in account service best practices, and watch the pushback begin. Some people will happily see the point of the change and embrace it. Others will hedge and cavil, carefully neither supporting nor walking away from the new direction. 

A third group will openly adopt an “anti” position and demand reasons why things must change. Some will clamor that “this is how we’ve always done it.” Others will argue, scream and stomp, resisting with every fiber of their being. This can cause leaders to ignore the resisters and turn full attention on their supporters. The result of that response is that the resistors will resist even harder, as the distance between the supporters and the rest of the team increases.

First, Adjust Your Own Thinking

At Strategy+Business, Elizabeth Doty suggests that when you see employees as resisters, you’re ignoring part of your team’s perception of risk. She says if we start thinking of resisters as guardians, we can alter our own thinking to understand and consider alternative, valuable points of view. Risk perceptions are often based on experience, and may need to be addressed before there is any hope of bringing the guardians around to your point of view. As important, your own point of view may be altered by seriously considering your guardians’ concerns.

The way to help all team members deal with major changes is to share both the upsides (positive outcomes), and the downsides (possible risks) of a change. What is important to each group? What should be prioritized for the benefit of the organization as a whole? What promises are being made? What protections will be put in place? 

Next, discuss what could go wrong. Are your guardians seeing risks you overlooked? Do they, or you, need more data to ensure the change is the right move at this time? Can you clear up assumptions and misconceptions, and get everyone moving forward in support of the change?

Addressing Concerns About Risk

This approach to reframing change is called “polarity management.” Polarity is defined as “a state in which two ideas, opinions, etc., are completely opposite or very different from each other.” Like magnets holding positive and negative charges, the two cannot come together unless one pole (person) reverses its polarity. 

When your team is divided along opposing lines, you need to change the polarity so they can come back together. The best way to change your team’s polarity is to listen respectfully to their POVs, and include them in ideas for how to ensure their concerns do not have a chance to come true.

We live in an era where “us vs. them” thinking has almost become the norm. You cannot run a smart, responsive agency if your people are too divided to work as a team. You can’t make essential upgrades to systems and practices without having your team fully behind the effort. The next time you need to institute a change in processes, systems or culture, work hard to bring your supporters and guardians to the same viewpoint. You can’t do it by force. You must use respect and sincere acknowledgement of guardian’s concerns. Let them know you hear them, and give them information and support to enable them to join you in making change for the better.

Bonus: As you improve your polarity management skills, you can use similar techniques to reassure risk-averse clients and help them move forward.


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