When we propose a strong solution to a commonly agreed upon issue in our firm, it can be a shock to then be faced with resistance to that solution.  But a little pushback can be a very good thing.

If you’ve ever been to a massage therapist after an injury, you’ve probably experienced the magic of PNF resistance stretching.  That’s when the therapist will place their hands on your injured muscles and push against you, asking your to resist the pressure by pushing back against them as hard as you can.  After thirty seconds, they will stop pushing and ask you to relax. At that point they will gently force your muscles to stretch in the opposite direction.  As a result, the healing process is hastened and the muscles actually increase their flexibility.

Similarly, properly dealing with pushback to change management ideas in a law firm can also result in a much improved management solution.  But the road there can be a painful journey at first.  We’ve all seen it in action.  A firm has identified an issue and asked someone to research it and make a recommendation for improvement.  At the presentation meeting, some lawyers question the research, poke holes in the assumptions, and put down the solution without offering any alternatives.  I bet you can picture who those lawyers would typically be in your firm, because they tend to push back on all new ideas.  Sometimes it might feel like these trouble makers are a drag on the firm, and that the partnership would do better without them.  But not so fast. In a way, these pushback artists are actually helping the firm to create better programs.  Here’s why.

  1. The best ideas consider all perspectives.   When I served as the President of my profession’s international board, I was always wary when there was little to no dissention around an idea we were about to vote on, because it usually meant that we hadn’t thought it through from all angles.  Good ideas can be defended on all sides.   It is preferable and even critical to have a healthy debate around change management in order to ensure that any concerns are considered and addressed.  (The key word is “healthy”.  Contentious meetings may need to include a neutral facilitator who can keep conversation going while ensuring relationships aren’t damaged.)
  2. By preparing to face naysayers, you actually build a better product.  Litigators aren’t surprised by the answer to questions in court, because they’ve already considered all potential responses and how to deal with them.  Be prepared.  A good business case is well-developed, strategic, and contains accurate information.  Ensure your data and assumptions are correct.  Speak with key attendees in advance of your presentation and ensure they will back you verbally in the meeting.  If you can, touch base with those you know will be naysayers, share the big picture of your presentation with them, and ask them where they might have difficulties.  A change management plan approval meeting is not a “big reveal”.  There’s no benefit to keeping it absolutely confidential beforehand if your intent is to have the plan passed.  Do whatever you can to ensure that once you get into the meeting, the plan is virtually rubber stamped.  Even if that means meeting with the pushback kings beforehand.  (Also see list below.)
  3. This could be your chance to get difficult partners on-side.  It may feel like frequently vocal naysayers simply like the sound of their own voice, but in their mind they are expressing a concern based on a strong desire to ensure the firm doesn’t make a mistake.  In other words, at some level they care deeply.  And there’s usually enough truth to their argument that this isn’t just about ego.  They may have a gift of sorts to bring to the table, albeit one in ugly wrapping.  If you engage this person prior to the presentation meeting, even put them on the committee working on the recommendation, you might help to teach them how to work toward strong decisions for the firm in a positive rather than negative way.  It’s also been my experience that naysayers are often ideas people.  And let’s face it, not everyone is.  If you can turn these people around so that their ideas can be used for the good of the firm instead of trying to tear parts of the firm down, you might have built a very valuable and helpful resource.

One last bit of advice.  In preparing for pushback, you might want to review this list of possible causes, courtesy of the website of the Center for Urban Transportation Studies, Milwaukee.  It may help you to anticipate what some of the pushback you might face could be.

People resist change:

  • When the reason for the change is unclear.  Ambiguity–whether it is about costs, equipment, jobs–can trigger negative reactions among users.
  • When the proposed users have not been consulted about the change, and it is offered to them as an accomplished fact.  People like to know what’s going on, especially if their jobs may be affected.  Informed workers tend to have higher levels of job satisfaction than uninformed workers.
  • When the change threatens to modify established patterns of working relationships between people.
  • When communication about the change–timetables, personnel, monies, etc.–has not been sufficient.
  • When the benefits and rewards for making the change are not seen as adequate for the trouble involved.
  • When the change threatens jobs, power or status in an organization.

Decision makers will be more responsive to change:

  • If the information presented coincides with their current values, beliefs, and attitudes:
  • If they perceive that the change will benefit them more than it will cost them:
  • If the innovation requires marginal rather than major changes in their views or lives:
  • If they have a demonstrated need for the innovation: and
  • If the innovation is introduced gradually so that people can adjust to the resulting change.