Six guidelines for responding to hostile challenges to change

Credit: Vasko Miokovic
Credit: Vasko Miokovic

I’m breaking my silence here at Pros Write with these guidelines. They’re the result of a study made available today in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. With my co-authors (Pierson Carmichael and Jefrey Naidoo), I offer six practical lessons to help change agents manage communication and maintain credibility with stakeholders who have made a hostile challenge like “Why are we changing a successful system?”

Lesson #1: Diagnose the source of the stakeholder’s hostility in order to determine the component of readiness you need to address.

Once you are familiar with the five components of change messages, you will become adept at diagnosing which of these you must address to neutralize the stakeholder’s hostility toward your change initiative. Does your response need to focus on the discrepancy between where your organization is and where it needs to be? the appropriateness of the planned change for dealing with the discrepancy? the likely efficacy of the planned change? the support of leadership? or the benefits of the planned change to individuals?

Lesson #2: Claim dealing with the challenge isn’t timely as your default response strategy.

Our recommendation is backed by the consistency of findings in studies about strategies for responding to hostility. It may well be most preferred because it implies that the change agents are already addressing the concerns the stakeholder has raised.

Lesson #3: With an efficacy challenge, either deny something about the challenge exists or explain why answering the challenge isn’t desirable.

Because the timing strategy was not preferred with challenges focused on the potential efficacy of the planned change, you need alternatives in this situation. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on our own findings, with nothing in an earlier study to warn against its use. Similarly, our recommendation to use the desirability strategy is based on earlier findings, with nothing in our own to warn against its use.

Lesson #4: Deny something about the challenge exists to deal with challenges to discrepancy and appropriateness, as well as efficacy.

Because the timing strategy may not always be applicable with challenges focused on the the need for or appropriateness of your planned change, you need an alternative in these situations. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on its consistently high preference rankings in our own and earlier studies.

Lesson #5: Claim you aren’t able to handle the challenge with caution and only when dealing with principal support or personal valence challenges.

Preferences for the ability strategy were highly inconsistent. It ranked 2nd overall in our study because of its effectiveness dealing with principal support and personal valence challenges. In contrast, it ranked among least preferred strategies for dealing with other types of challenges in our study and for dealing with all challenges in an earlier study.

Lesson #6: Don’t deny you are the right person for handling the challenge.

Although our results for the agency strategy were inconsistent with an earlier study, we feel justified in cautioning change agents not to use it because it “passes the buck.” Benoit notes that “denial and shifting the blame are not considered by those who are injured by the actions to be as appropriate or effective as other potential image restoration strategies”. Earlier research found the agency strategy least preferred when responding to hostility about environmental concerns, and in interviews with experienced organizational spokespersons, some noted they had been explicitly taught not to use it in public affairs training.

After using these lessons to deal with the hostile challenge in a way that maintains your credibility, you can continue your on-going dialogue about components of the change which your stakeholder finds troubling. My single-minded focus on research has been inevitable during my sabbatical this fall. But I intend to share more often here when 2015 arrives. At least that’s the plan.

Further Reading

Armenakis, A. A. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681–703.

Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Campbell, K. S., Follender, S. I., & Shane, G. (1998). Preferred strategies for responding to hostile questions in environmental public meetings. Management Communication Quarterly, 11(3), 401–421. 

Campbell, K. S., Parker, F., & Follender, S. I. (1996). Responding to hostile questions: More insights from speech act theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(2), 151–167.

Gore, M. S. (2003). Strategies leaders should use to respond to hostile questions regarding organizational changes: An empirical investigation. Thesis. Air Force Institute of Technology.

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