What You Can Do When Your Sponsors Are Resisting a Change

Posted by Paula Alsher on Thu, May 12, 2016 @ 10:30 AM

Sponsors are the key drivers of transformational change.  What they say, what they do, and what they reinforce on a daily basis determines 50-70% of the likelihood of achieving value realization for the transformation. So, what do you do when they are the ones who are reluctant to change? When Managers Resist a Change

A common mistake during any change implementation is when Change Agents look for resistance to a transformational change deep down in the organization. After all, you would expect to find the most resistance at the front lines of the change, right?  But in our 30+ years of Change Management Consulting experience, we have discovered it's usually the senior managers, directors, and VPs that have the greatest resistance to the transformational change.  


The Great Paradox of Transformational Change

One of the key principles we teach in the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM) Change Management Training is to expect the highest level of resistance from the people that have the greatest motivation for things to remain the same.  More often than not, this is your mid-to upper-level managers, because in the end, they are the ones who have the most to lose in terms of current and future power and prestige.  

This is more than just an interesting fact; it's highly problematic because these are the very people that you need as Reinforcing Sponsors of the transformation.  So herein lies the paradox of transformational change: many times, the people you actually seek to Sponsor the transformation, and who have the most impact on driving the transformation, also have the most resistance because you are asking them to fly in the face of their previous success!

What Can Be Done?

So, what can be done?  First, it is important to realize resistance is inevitable, and not necessarily logical.  You will never combat or eliminate resistance to change; instead you need to manage it. {Tweet This}  Below are several actions you can take to help manage resistance from your Sponsors:    

Select the RIGHT Change Agents

The Change Agent role is essential for a successful implementation. One of the most common mistakes we see is when organizations choose Change Agents based on who has the time available, or who has technical knowledge rather than taking the time to pick people who have the right skills, knowledge, credibility, and trust within the organization for the job.

For example, you can't have a Change Agent attempt to work in an area where he or she has no trust or credibility.  Sponsors of the change must be able to trust the Agent before they will work with them.

Treat Sponsors as Targets First  

It is critical to treat every level of the organization, from the senior leadership down, as Targets first.  There is absolutely no point in trying to create readiness at the lower levels of the organization if the people in power are resisting the change. Instead, readiness needs to be cascaded through the organization level by level. The most important work a Change Agent can do is to secure active Sponsorship and therefore, demonstrated commitment of each and every Sponsor who has direct reports impacted the change. 

In fact, no Target is more important than the Sponsors who must provide demonstrated commitment to the change. These Sponsors need to have the same two questions answered as any other Target: what's this change mean to me and what's in it for me? Once the answers to these questions have been provided, managers can potentially begin to move from Target to Sponsor mode.

Make Certain that There Are New Reinforcements in Place

Managers are just like everyone else-- they do something because they are reinforced for it in some way. Remember, the reinforcements you have in place today are perfectly designed for your current culture. If you don't change those reinforcements, you will just get more of the same behavior.

Ask yourself: What happens to those mid to upper-level managers who do the right things?  What happens to those who don't? How often are the executives providing consequences for the behavior of their own direct reports?

New "implementation specific" reinforcements need to be in place to change the current state behaviors of these mid to upper-level managers.  The new reinforcements must be aligned with getting these Sponsors to "express, model, and reinforce" their demonstrated commitment to the transformational change.  


Building a cascade of committed Sponsors down each management level within an organization is crucial for maximum implementation acceleration. So, when your Senior Managers, Directors and VP’s are resisting the change, progress can easily slow down or completely stall out.  What can you do about it?  Take the time to surface the resistance and then manage it!

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Topics: Sponsorship, Transformational Change, Leadership, Resistance to change