Managing Change Saboteurs (or Destructors)

I always consider the words destructor and destroy from which it is derived, as extremely emotive words and evocative of violence and physical threat. Now I’m not suggesting that change saboteurs are about to go through several rounds in a boxing ring with you, but you may well feel that you have expended an equivalent amount of energy after engagement.

So who are the saboteurs? Fortunately a minority in most organisations but still proponents of the 80/20 rule – where they can take up 80% of your time expending 20% of theirs! Actually I would say they are probably more like followers of the 99/1 rule! Unfortunately, no matter how you feel about your engagement with change saboteurs, they are there and have to be dealt with.

How do you recognize a change saboteur? Not surprisingly, it’s not that difficult. They will usually be very vocal at every opportunity. They are the people who are quick to tell you how things won’t work and the change is no good, that there is nothing wrong with the existing systems/process/teams etc. and they really see it as an opportunity for management to hire consultants, waste money or put more upon their employees. They will often sit in any meeting and constantly mutter under their breath, give bullets to others – figuratively and verbally – for shooting down the change messenger. The other challenge with the change saboteur is their desire to prove the change is not needed, often being obstructive, uncooperative and generally negative about any change activity.

This leads me to explain why I call them saboteurs. There are two key elements to defining a saboteur – the acts they perform are generally aimed at disrupting, destroying or weakening something and the second element of a saboteur is that they often desire anonymity or secrecy about their identity. Now, for the most part change saboteurs will confidently express their views but it is often the actions of sabotage that are hard to attribute to them. As I mentioned above, they are the verbal bullet feeders to others to shoot the words of dissent. My experience is that they will not want to undertake any significant saboteur actions personally but will be keen to provide others with the ideas, methods and opportunity to try and scupper plans for a change.

Great! You may ask if you can remove these people and drop them somewhere secluded! Not a nice thought, but I challenge any change management professional to have not had that thought about a few saboteurs in their time. All joking aside, the need to isolate them from opportunities to provoke others and limit their level and range of influence is important and necessary. How do you do this? Unfortunately, in my experience, discussions and addressing concerns can be rather time concerning with these folks, and you can end up going around in circles. This mainly happens because of their blinkered views and immobility on the change activity. No matter how you explain things to them, they only see it from their preconceived opinion. You will occasionally get a light bulb moment with them. If you go in hard and hit them with the impact to their salary, reputation or performance early in proceedings they may have a jolt and move in their opinions, but if this doesn’t work, then you have to manage them throughout the change activity and accept that they will get on board at the end, but only when there is no option but to do so.

Managing the saboteur through change is very energy consuming. However, if you have to do so, here are a few options that may help:

  • Take away people that are close by to do other tasks that keep them separated;
  • Use their knowledge of the existing systems to detail the as-is processes and clearly write it up;
  • Discuss options for them to take up the additional work needed to cover colleague absences through their involvement in change activities. This will probably need some discussion with their manager;
  • Bite the bullet and ask them to compile a paper on why they think the change won’t work. Don’t dismiss it when it comes through, there may be something in there that you have missed and you may even want to discuss it with the individual;
  • Consider redeployment, relocation and retraining options to move them out of the area being affected. I personally don’t like this as I feel you are just excluding the individual, but can be something to consider.

Well the theme from all of these suggestions is around giving saboteurs other duties to keep them occupied and perhaps away from the main change activity. Isolation to a certain level from people they may influence and feed those bullets to.

The full challenge of saboteurs is something that can only be truly experienced and is hard to discuss. However, there will always be one present in every change event, and managing them through minimising their impact needs energy, effort and careful planning.

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