Most people don’t like change. That’s why leaders who try to implement change usually run into resistance, often in the form of animosity towards the boss.
Which sucks if you’re the boss.
This isn’t news—if you’ve been in leadership for any amount of time, then you’ve felt it. But if you’re a relatively new manager, particularly a new female manager, then you may be struggle with it. I’ve talked about not being liked before but I wanted to outline some specific tactics that can help you deal with tension that comes at you when you lead through change.
For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming that the changes you are implementing are needed, useful, and well-supported. Certainly, ill-advised wholesale changes can cause negativity that is valid. But let’s assume that you’ve done your homework, are rolling out changes well, and they are critical to the health of the business, even if they make people unhappy.
What’s going on?
Let’s think of negativity on a spectrum. Figure out where you are on that continuum.
Do you feel a general sense of discomfort – the perception that people were just trash talking you and stopped when you walked into the room? Or do you sense a cooling in enthusiasm from someone who was once warm? Trust your gut. Honor the hurt that comes from a shift in how people treat you. But realize that it comes with the territory. People talk about their bosses, and change makes them uncomfortable. Expect that some of that will spill over onto you. Sometimes it is best to accept these underlying negative dynamics and let it go.
At other times, there can be active hostility that’s toxic to your team, your work, and you. Refusal to perform tasks, active sabotage of your work, and aggressive language, yelling, or profanity MUST be swiftly addressed.
But when the negativity falls between these two extremes and it’s hard to tell when to let it go and when to act, you might need an outside opinion. Write down exactly what’s happening. Then write down what your emotional reaction is it. Check it with a trusted friend or mentor. Is your emotional reaction congruent with the actual events?
Keep in mind that nobody leaves their histories or emotional baggage at the door when we get to work – quite the contrary. Some things bother us more than others because of our history, so separating out these strands can be helpful. And it can go both ways. I’ve seen leaders overreact to small slights because they suffered in a relationship with a very critical parent or spouse, and I’ve seen leaders accept terrible behavior from others because they grew up with an abusive parent and just don’t see what’s going on as unacceptable.
Is this something you can change?
Again, a mentor or friend can help you see whether you have a part in what is happening. Could you be more skillful in informing your team about impending changes or validating the difficulty of change? Were you realistic about the pace and support (like training for your staff) needed for the changes to work?
My sample size might be skewed since I work with leaders who actively seek professional growth. But generally, the leaders I see are strong, good people who are concerned about the dislike and animosity coming at them. But when we sit down and walk through it, often the negative energy is not even about them. It’s is just an emotional reaction people are having to the changes the leaders are implementing and they are taking it out on the leader.
I once had a boss get upset with me because I wore brand of shoes that his much-hated mother-in-law wore. That image became a useful tool – if I’m faced with inexplicable resentment from someone, I just imagine that I remind them of their mother-in-law, and tell myself that this association is out of my hands.
And let’s be realistic, plenty of people don’t like women in power. Again, there is nothing you can do about that.
What can you do?
There are plenty of ways to work around these issues. Build social capital. Be a good person. Do your work, be professional and kind, and keep the needs of your team high on your list of priorities. Do the right thing. Value being respected rather than being liked.
It also helps to have a viable community outside of work. Find people or groups where you don’t have to be in charge, where you can work for a common goal that is enjoyable. Sing in a choir, take hikes with friends, join a book club, church, or a volunteer group, take a class.
And remember why you do this. In my most difficult jobs, what kept me going was remembering why I worked, not what I was doing. I was a young single mother and I worked to provide for my children. At dinner with them in the evenings, we’d crack each other up and that made the wretched days worth it. Your reason why may be the chance to do great creative work or achieve your financial goals. Figure it out and keep a representation of that reason close by at work to remind you.
Take care of yourself. Leading a resistant team through change is stressful. You may work long hours managing people who are unhappy and afraid. Eat good food, preferably not at your desk. Get some exercise. Play. Talk to friends. If you have a spiritual practice, use it. If you don’t, consider trying mindfulness meditation.
The animosity and discomfort that comes with leading people through change will pass, and the skills you build to manage them will serve your throughout your career.