Reflections on “Managing Resistance to Change” in a Multicultural Environment

Managing Resistance to Change stands as a critical and intricate topic. While we engage in the process of driving change in our daily lives, it's crucial to recognise the multitude of hidden dynamics existing beneath the surface. In each unique situation, it is vital to be completely present, focused on the individuals or groups involved. Moreover, drawing from personal experiences, reflections, and a readiness to adapt oneself becomes fundamental.

In my conversations with companies or leaders, I've noticed a common inclination to categorise individuals into a negative 'resistant to change' classification.

I often remind myself and others the significance of stepping into the shoes of the other party. It's crucial to understand that each person hails from different backgrounds, cultures, and organisational histories. These individual differences shape their commitment to their current situation or their receptiveness to change. This understanding unveils the various reasons behind 'Not invented here' or 'why it's not right for us' attitudes, showing diverse coping mechanisms and levels of internal integration. Recognising that everyone responds differently to change, we must be sensitive to their individual needs. Some may require more time to adapt and react. This understanding fuels our patience, enabling us to listen and observe attentively. It provides change leaders with the energy and insight needed to navigate various perspectives effectively.

We encounter various forms of resistance to change daily, spanning different levels within the organisational structure—from Board, Steering Committees, Senior leadership to Management. Cross-functional teams, project teams. Externally, customers and partners also display resistance in different ways.

Consider a scenario where the global team or organisational leaders identify a slowdown in a significant cross-functional project. Their suspicion falls on certain individuals, assuming they are resistant to change. In such cases, it's imperative to pause and reconsider the initial conclusions and judgments regarding this resistance. An objective review is necessary to determine whether the perceived resistance is truly the case, or if cultural nuances and behaviours have been misinterpreted, leading to an assumption of resistance due to misalignment with the norm familiar to us. These subtleties often elude detection by quantitative surveys, requiring a thorough investigation to demystify the situation.

In a specific instance, upon closer examination, it was revealed that a breakdown in communication and the imposition of an unrealistic timeline were the actual reasons behind the perceived resistance. This misunderstanding spread through word of mouth, causing the parties involved to be labeled as resistant to change.

Another crucial aspect to consider is the significance of the unspoken. What remains unsaid often holds as much weight, if not more, than explicit verbal communication. Around 65% of resistance manifests through non-verbal signals. In certain cultures, such as those in Asia, this figure may escalate to as much as 80%. Reading non-verbal cues is essential, whether in face-to-face interactions or virtual meetings.

Positive signs can include smiles, nods, forward body language, and attentive focus. However, identifying cues like slower speech, frowns, leaning back, avoiding eye contact, silence, or tight lips is crucial. These signs might indicate boredom or potential reluctance to progress, reflected in delayed responses.

It's essential to be cautious, especially when transitioning between different cultural groups. What might be perceived as resistance in one setting could be a completely different response in another. In a project meeting where everyone appears to nod, it's important not to assume unanimous agreement. Nodding holds different meanings, varying with cultural contexts. For instance, in certain countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and China, nodding when you first present your plans to transform may indicate acknowledgment rather than agreement. Misinterpreting these cues as a change leader can lead to progressing with the project, only to face obstacles later on. For instance, during a project across Vietnam, Singapore, and Amsterdam, the Asian team's tendency to nod without raising significant concerns was mistakenly perceived as agreement. Consequently, the  team actually needed more time to digest and progress the project. This eventually led to unprepared User Acceptance Testing (UAT) and incomplete data.

Valuable tips to navigate these situations if you notice symptoms: 

- Engaging in active listening, focusing not just on spoken words but on facial expressions and non-verbal cues in smaller groups or one-one-one. 

- Recording observations for later review and understanding.

- Encouraging one-on-one conversations early on, creating a safe space for diverse team members to express themselves honestly.

- Offering opportunities for one-on-one conversations or chats from the initial stages is crucial. This involves assessing the team's feelings and perceptions beyond quantitative surveys. By deliberately engaging with diverse team members in a conversation framed as a "how are you" discussion, you can gain honest feedback about their thoughts and team dynamics. During these conversations, consider asking specific questions like:

  • "What actions are you contemplating taking since you are not on board with the plans?"
  • "What resources or support do you require to address or resolve these issues? How can we help?"
  • "In your view, what would be a better solution?"
  • "What alternatives or options are available to you?"

This approach aims to understand individual viewpoints and needs, fostering a space for open dialogue and collaboration.

Allowing time and personalised approaches, realising that standardised tools like surveys, Artificial Intelligence, FAQs, or newsletters might not address these nuanced issues effectively.

The article is part 1 of a reflections by Wong Mei Wai, Founder CEO & Chief Change Advisor, APAC Global Advisory and written by Chang Hui Tze, APAC Global Advisory.