What employees who dig in their heels are REALLY trying to tell you
  • leadership
  • Blog post

What employees who dig in their heels are REALLY trying to tell you

Let’s say you have a veteran employee — a valued, skilled employee — and you want him to change something about the way he does his job. Maybe it’s having him fill out a new kind of report, or adopt a different method for dealing with customers, or start using new equipment or new software.

So you put the case for change to him, and he gets his back up. He can’t do what you ask, he says, for reasons X, Y, and Z. He finishes his argument and looks at you expectantly.

Wow, you think. You need this guy to get with the program. But at the same time, you don’t want to do anything that will push him to polish up his resume and look for greener pastures.

So what are you going to say?

It’s all about control

Before you say anything, it helps to know what’s really behind this reaction from your veteran employee. You might assume he just hates change. But that’s not necessarily so.

More likely, what he’s really trying to do is maintain control over his work. He’s not telling you he can’t or won’t change. What he is telling you is this: He had autonomy, you took it away, and he wants it back.

Most people have a high need for control. Fine. Employees work harder and achieve more when they feel in control.

The question is: How do you preserve an employee’s sense of control, and still get him to do what you want? Research from the London Business School and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management suggests a way: If you must take away power, offer more choice.

To explore the relationship between power and choice, researchers tested two groups of people. The first were directed to imagine themselves in a high-power role (a boss). The second group imagined themselves in a low-power role (an employee).

Power and choice

Next, the researchers described two stores: One offered a limited selection and the other a wide range of merchandise. The researchers asked both groups how much effort they would expend to shop at the store with the broad selection. Would they drive farther? How much farther? If the limited-choice store was open right now and the high-choice store was closed, would they wait for the high-choice store to open? For how long?

The results were clear: The people in the low-power roles wanted more choice. They were willing to drive significantly farther and wait longer to get it.

Think about what this means for your change-averse employee. If you’re going to take away his power by asking him to do something he doesn’t want to do, you can make up for it by giving him more choice. By offering choices, you enhance his sense of control and disarm his resistance.

Of course, your guy doesn’t get to choose whether to comply. But you can be flexible about how he goes about it – in other words, choices related to process.

For example, if he’s been giving you excuses for why he hasn’t started filling out the new report, say, “We need you to switch over, but I can be flexible about when you do it. Would you like to submit your first report next week or the week after?”

If he has problems with the new way you want him to engage customers, tell him, “Do you want to suggest some alternative language for the kind of situation you describe?”

The right words

Notice the use of words such as “flexible” and “suggest.” They imply that you’re empowering your employee to make choices.

But aren’t these just insignificant choices that the employee will see through? Not really. Other research suggests that even small choices about process can trigger greater buy-in and better performance. For example, children do better at solving puzzles when they choose which color pen to use, versus when the researcher chooses the pen for them.

Another way to introduce choice into the process is by asking multiple-choice questions. You might say, “Here are three different ways we might tackle this problem. Which of them do you think we should try?”

The research also tells you what not to do: Don’t respond with power. When an employee digs in his heels, you’ll want to respond by pushing back. But that would threaten the employee’s sense of control even more. Instead, take a step back, regroup, and consider how you can build more choice into the process.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Change management: How to disarm passive resistance.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Iyengar, S. & Lepper, M. (1999). Rethinking the value of choice: A cultural perspective on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 349-366.


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