At this point, you can do a couple of things. The first one is the one that seems to be the most common – chalk it up to ‘people dislike change’, and force things to go ahead, anyway. Eventually, people will get on board, if you’re right, and you keep pushing, and they don’t have a choice. But you’re going to have to work hard to get things embedded enough that they don’t backslide when you stop pushing. It’s a painful way to do things, and people make a lot of money being the bad guys who implement change. And when they leave, the change slowly erodes, performs badly, or gets discredited. In the long run, not much changes, and a lot of money gets spent.
The Road to Recovery
You can be more effective. Even at the point where you’ve implemented an unpopular change, things can still be recovered, though it can be intimidating to do what’s necessary. Step away from the problem, and your interpretation of why it’s happening. Put aside your judgement of the people involved. Take the time to sit down and ask them what’s wrong. People want to be heard. They want a voice. They want to know that their concerns have been understood. So take the time to go to the loudest, most upset people, and let them talk directly to you. Ask them what’s bothering them, and listen when they tell you. I don’t mean listen in the hopes of refuting their arguments, or waiting for your chance to speak. I’m talking about listening as a means of connecting to another person. Regardless of whether you think it’s justified, the people you’ve imposed change on feel aggrieved; successful change requires understanding why, and working through things with them. So, listen. Ask questions that show you’re listening (“What impact did this have on you?”, “How could things have been done better?”, etc). Don’t take anything personally. This isn’t about you, or the changes you’ve implemented, or anything you stand for or believe in. This is about them. Completely, wholly, unreservedly about them and the impact the change has had on them. Ask questions, and listen, until they no longer have anything to add. Then repeat back to them what your understanding of what they’ve said is, so you can be sure you’ve understood. This, on its own, feels cathartic to those with complaints.
Catharsis will improve things, temporarily. It will give people the feeling that someone has heard what they’ve said. The goal in going through this process is to understand where you went wrong, yes. But before that happens, you need to form a connection with the person you’re talking to. That connection is where communication really starts, and forming it comes from listening, and empathy. These, in and of themselves, are worthwhile goals. The next step is showing people they’ve been heard. This will close the loop, and make people more likely to talk to you directly, next time.
Once you understand the problems that are being raised, you may or may not do anything (or be able to do anything) about it. It may be that your hand was forced, that the changes you implemented were correct, or that what’s being objected to is how things were done, rather than what was done. None of those things matter, in the moment. Stop trying to solve the problem, and just listen to what’s being said, and what isn’t. And once you’ve done it with the first unhappy person, go talk to the rest. After having those conversations, spend time thinking about what they’ve said, how to take it on board, and then communicate back to them how their advice has impacted things.
Empathy and listening are skills that are difficult for many people to master. Listening just to be listening, rather than to find a solution, is something that schools rarely teach, and work rarely rewards. It’s a skill that tends to languish, and get rusty over many years. Don’t feel bad if it doesn’t come naturally, right away. It will come, if you give it time. And the next time you want to make a change, even a fantastic change, for good reasons, talk to people first. They’ll be happy they’ve been consulted, they’ll be more likely to buy into the change that’s coming, you can learn from them, and they may even provide a solution to the problem that you hadn’t considered.