Project Management Institute

Leading your horse to water and getting it to drink--handling stubborn resistance to change


  The challenges of leading change are numerous and knowing how to overcome them is critical to being successful.

This paper will highlight key components in change management that include the attitudes and behaviors of management, the team, and you as the leader. Comprehending senior leaders’ concerns and needs, and meeting or exceeding them is imperative. If more than 70% of all people are resistant to change (Marston, 1979), then utilizing exceptional communication and influence management are vital to achieve buy-in.

Change and change readiness is central to project management and well-executed projects. The best change managers are leaders that add true value and profitability to their companies. Great change agents ensure clear information exchange, smooth transitions, and buy-in utilizing a proactive approach to teamwork, continuous improvement, and a strategic mindset. Change management credibility is critical to advancing the project management profession.

Typical Change Management Failures

Many of us have lived through poor change management initiatives—a goal is stated by management and a change lead is assigned. This lead determines the plan and communicates the details to the team. Consequently, opposition abounds and success is limited. As an example, senior management at a company decided to implement a process improvement that would be mandatory for all divisions. Significant time was spent in creating the process, but the results were not achieved. Not because the process or the goals were poorly thought out, but because there wasn't enough emphasis placed on the various and considerable impacts to each division in implementing the process. Therefore rebellion, passive aggressiveness, and flat-out non-compliance ensued. What is the main culprit? Buy-in. Without buy-in from the team, change management initiatives are fraught with difficulties. But, how is buy-in achieved?

The familiar axiom of the title of this paper is fairly accurate in change management. From our perspectives, the horse not wanting to drink doesn't make sense. You realize that you have a long ride ahead of you, and that water will be scarce—why can't the horse just do the right thing now? It can be incredibly frustrating and the potential to negatively impact the journey increases. Just as leading change can be equally as frustrating when the group doesn't respond as you expect. In this paper we will discuss how to avoid that frustration by helping “your horses” understand so that they act as required.

The title allegorically tells the story of change management success:

Leading = vision, direction, and accountability

Your Horse = those in the change initiative

To Water = goals

Getting It to Drink = their part in the success

Handling = your part in the success

Stubborn Resistance = unyielding opposition

To Change = movement into the unknown

When leading change, it is critical to address each of these areas well in your planning. You may recognize each topic, and while it may seem simple, you must ensure each one is robustly implemented.

By providing an overview in the abstract and lead section, expectations were set for the remainder of the paper. Being shown the goals and high-level sections allows you to have a known framework in which to categorize information. As in change management, communicating the goals and processes assists in relieving the team of the anxiety of what the future holds.


Great leadership is critical to successful change management initiatives. That leadership includes being able to create and communicate exceptional vision in a compelling way. Additionally, possessing outstanding influence skills are essential. Having a team that willingly follows you is a mark of an excellent leader.


One important aspect of great leadership is the ability to stand up to opposition—whether from the customer, team, peers, or management to do the right thing for the right reason. Honesty, high character, protecting those in need, and standing by your word, are hallmark attributes that will enable success as a leader.


As a leader in the initiative, ensure you have accountability in the outcome. It is crucial that people know you are held responsible for the end result. Having “skin in the game” builds trust, which is a compelling factor to people willingly following you.

One way to increase the accountability of team members is to hold them responsible for their part in the initiative, and the final outcome. If possible, add achievement of both metrics (personal and team) to their performance management documentation. Consequently, each player becomes motivated to affect the final result, which goes a long way to create a team environment. Independent offense and defense members of a sports team (with different individual goals) do not leave during the game, even if they are not on the field. They stay, support, and are ready to contribute when required. This is the type of behavior you must encourage on your change initiatives.


Excellent leadership includes exceptional communication skills. This means two-way communication—both ensuring that your message is received accurately and listening and understanding the receiver's perspective, and how he or she will be impacted by the change. There will be more information on this topic later in the paper.


The horses represent anyone impacted by the proposed change initiative. It includes team members, stakeholders, customers, and peers.

Learn the players and their needs and abilities. One common mistake made in change rollouts is not taking into account anyone impacted by the change, both positively and negatively. A best practice is to implement a stakeholder management plan that includes a matrix for roles and responsibilities.

Additionally, take into account the business culture along with those players: Are you a global company? Are there regional differences in the way people communicate, receive instruction, or respond to change? Is your company comprised of silos with different goals? Each of these answers will affect how you implement the change initiative and rollout process. Create plans to identify, evaluate, and effectively address these elements.

Treat every person with respect—they all have the potential to make a difference in the outcome. For example, I was leading a change initiative in China, and working with the site manager and his team. In a meeting I observed a person who was obviously disagreeing with what was being said, as she was shaking her head and frowning. She was not vocal because of the cultural climate. I could choose to ignore her, since she was not the focus of the discussion, or I could choose to ask why she thought the idea wasn't acceptable—making an assumption from her body language. Instead, I asked if she had any concerns with the proposed solution. Due to prior established trust, she was frank and stated valid points we would not have addressed otherwise. We incorporated those concepts and were wildly successful. People at all levels have different ideas, experiences and perspectives—use them!


Lead your horses to water. Water represents the final outcome. What does success look like? One change management pitfall is not identifying what problem the change is correcting. You should have specific, documented goals in a vision statement to clearly articulate the current and end state.

Begin understanding the value of the objective, by having face-to-face interviews to determine the senior leaders’ expectations, using exceptional listening and questioning skills. You may not be able to meet all the expectations, but you should always address them and solicit feedback.

The best vision is not created in isolation. When starting a new Project Management Office (PMO) a few years ago, I decided we needed a charter to help establish the purpose of the group. I sat with the Senior VP to find out what he expected from the PMO. I interviewed my peers to understand what they needed and would like from the PMO. Once the overall direction was clear, I gathered the project managers repeatedly to get their inputs to their goals, needs, and proposed accountability. My role was to ensure they were aware of organizational requirements and re-focus and guide them as needed. Their role was to create the specific vision statement with boundaries to which they would be held accountable. During one of the meetings, a project manager didn't like the use of one word but no one else agreed with him. After consideration and articulating why the word had a different meaning to him, the team agreed that it could be misinterpreted, and worked to determine a more accurate word. The end result was not only a much clearer statement, but also more importantly, the team had tremendous buy-in as they were “heard” and their inputs were valued. People follow more readily when they are orchestrators of the vision rather than people merely being directed.


In planning, as team members realize they will be impacted, they will offer options. Seriously evaluate them, and consider compromise. It's ironic that many people leading change initiatives resist changing or adapting to change. We can be rigid in our expectations of the process. Review the options and their impact on the end result versus how much more buy-in and productivity you may receive from the players by being flexible.


Metrics are critical for demonstrating the success of the change initiative from a business perspective. Consider what your company measures and what effects the change initiative will have on those measurements. We must prove to senior management and the stakeholders that the change is an improvement to the bottom-line business results.


Identify when you should communicate the vision—usually as it is approved by senior management. Vision should be communicated in various ways to all stakeholders. It should also be communicated any time there is a need to reinforce the change initiative. A great leader has a visionary quality when communicating—employ it. Notice that the concept of communication is repeated continuously through this paper. It is tremendously critical in various ways and a key capability of an excellent change initiative leader.

Getting It to Drink

You are leading your horses to water. Now “getting them to drink” represents what they need to do to help the success of the change.


The first activity should begin with understanding your own motivations for both achieving the results and choosing the process. These motivations can affect how you lead—positively and negatively. The next step is to accurately understand your management's and stakeholders’ motivations. Realize that they may have ulterior motivations for not participating. Additionally, understanding motivations for participating can be equally as enlightening. This will assist you to create a more accurate vision statement and in your interactions with the team.


Understand the two types of stakeholders—those that contribute and those that are committed. As in the story of the pig and the chicken that want to participate in a meal, the pig quickly realized that a breakfast of ham and eggs meant that he was committed, whereas the chicken was only contributing (Wikipedia, 2010). Your stakeholder “pigs” are committed to the change initiative and accountable for its outcome, and your “chickens” consult on the initiative and are informed of its progress. Knowing the difference can be another key factor in your success.


As in developing the vision statement, buy-in from the team regarding their roles and responsibilities is critically important. One of the most outstanding success stories I've witnessed involved an amazing senior program manager. A tremendously complex project, including more than 300 engineers in six countries, was the most important in the company. He was put in place after the project was in execution, following the removal of the original project manager due to poor leadership skills. The project was required to deliver in five months, and was forecasting seven months late. There was not one person on the team that believed it could deliver on-time. The new program manager called in all of the project leadership and many of the contributors and spent two weeks re-planning the project—much to the chagrin of the company's leadership team. By listening to the team, challenging them to parallelize, providing partial deliveries early for other team members to begin, removing non-value add tasks, and setting up clear lines of communication—the team realized that it was actually possible (although not probable) that the project could deliver on-time. With the proper incentives, and perceived ability to affect the end result, the team was now motivated to try to achieve the improbable. Once there was clear vision and a focused path established, the project manager utilized his outstanding leadership and communication skills to ensure success—and the project delivered on-time. Work to achieve buy-in from your team, with clear roles and responsibilities, and acknowledging how each individual can impact the end result.

Not My Job

As stated previously, helping the team to achieve the “team mentality” is a factor to consider. If you have team members driving to a common goal, with great communication paths, and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, then you have created a true team. If you have people that will only do their part, your successes will be limited.


The handling of the horses represents your role in creating the successful outcome.

Change Agent

No matter where your role resides in the company—VP, PMO director, or project manager, you may have a great amount of, or almost no, organizational authority to “make things happen.” Yes, if you have organizational authority then change management can be somewhat easier. It is important to note that if you rely on organizational authority alone, your initiative will not be as successful. Decreeing a change potentially creates passive aggressiveness and other negative behaviors. Just because you may have organizational authority, doesn't mean there aren't pitfalls to avoid. Your role is to influence and help the different stakeholders understand the benefits to them and the company. This will be discussed in more detail later in the paper.

Project Managed Change

Many times we do not correlate a change initiative to a project and realize it should be managed with the care, detail, and methodology that we would use to manage projects. Some things to consider:

  • Collect and assess change initiative requirements, prior mistakes and unsuccessful rollouts, best practices, stakeholder expectations, influence management, options and impacts.
  • Excellent planning includes communications, stakeholder management, scope, schedule, and risk plans.
  • Implementation strategies involve attitudes, global impacts, reporting, and communication.
  • Apply well-thought-out governance procedures that focus on impacts, efficiencies, change management, and continuous improvement.
  • Consider factors contributing to the end of the initiative, how the requirements have been met, measure and report with predetermined metrics and surveys, celebrate the wins and reward the best behaviors and results.

So far, this paper has focused on the typical change management techniques. The remainder will examine handling the tougher crowd—those with stubborn resistance.

Stubborn Resistance

The word “stubborn” implies a person having unyielding attributes. It is imperative to determine the reasons why members of our team are stubborn, so that we are better able to address it. Resistance is an action word involving opposition that typically leads to conflict, or other more destructive behaviors like passive aggressiveness.


Your role in dealing with stubborn resistance is to address it head on. Don't avoid people that have these inclinations. You must seek out and manage it proactively; otherwise it will find you—usually at the most inopportune times. Develop a management plan to counteract known resistance.


Become discerning. Reasons for resistance vary, but common views are “this change initiative does not benefit me enough” or “the change is good but not worth the level of effort.” Help them understand how the initiative can assist them in achieving their goals now or in the future. If there is limited benefit, express the company success outcome and their critically required cooperation and support, and that their benevolent participation will be recognized.

Additionally, take into account political, cultural, or regional reasons why people may be resistant to the change. Many years ago, I was given the directive to rollout a new mandatory process in Hong Kong. After an all-day meeting with the team, receiving positive responses and agreement, I went to dinner with a local peer. I expressed my satisfaction that it had gone so well and he agreed. After asking how long he thought it would take to implement the process in that location, he informed me that they were not going to implement it, even though it was mandatory. I was stunned! We had agreement. What I discovered they had agreed on was that the process was a good one. Regardless, the Hong Kong team did not feel it would work for them and were not inclined to state that unless asked directly. Luckily, I had scheduled another day at that site, met with the group again and said, “Now that you have had time to think about this process, are there any roadblocks that would keep you from utilizing it in this location?”

The difference in response was tremendous. They readily chimed in with challenges and options, we reached a compromise and timetable with owners, and the process rolled out smoothly. Had I assumed agreement after the first meeting, the outcome would have been very different. Not understanding both their culture and their regional needs could have been disastrous.


Once you have discerned the stubborn resistance, you must acknowledge its existence. You should not give lip service that you heard them, which can be patronizing, but you must truly understand and convey the discomfort they may feel. Reflect back to them in your words what the impact of the change means to them.


This is the key concept—create a plan to address their concerns as if this was always a part of the rollout, and incorporate those items in your initiative plans. Once you have done that, the next step is to show the affected stakeholders the altered plans and request feedback. If you are not able to address their concerns in a way they value, you must be able to show the big picture effects for the company and get to a win/win situation. Never ignore those with stubborn resistance.

Support Required

You must consider how you will receive both their support and commitment. Will you need champions from their organizations? Can you establish metrics that include their participation, and are you able to add this initiative into their performance management? Documentation will help to ensure any agreements are clearly understood. That may come in the form of a roles and responsibilities matrix, a contract, or even an email that you can utilize to refer to as people potentially forget their commitments.

Communication Skills

Having excellent communication skills is critical in dealing with stubborn resistance. Projects and change initiatives fail most often due to poor communication.

Understanding Stakeholders

In your communication plan, develop strategies based on stakeholders’ level of interest compared to the level of impact they may have on the initiative and the level of impact they may feel from the initiative (PMI, 2008, p. 249).

  • If stakeholders’ level of interest is low and their ability to impact the initiative is low, then they should be communicated with to ensure they know what is going on in a more general and high level, and at less frequent intervals.
  • If people have high interest and low impact, then it may be best to communicate somewhat more frequently to keep them in the loop, or even assign additional duties, but beware of the level of “skin in the game”—these are your chickens, not pigs!
  • If people have high impact and low interest, first understand why the interest is low. If it is due to a higher level in the organization and therefore they might have limited time, then you should spend a reasonable amount of time in ensuring that they agree with the direction and status and there are no miscommunications. But, it could be that they don't fully understand the change or benefits; and if that is the case, then you should spend more time in moving them to the following quadrant.
  • Obviously, if people have high interest and high impact, this is where you spend the majority of your time in communications, details, frequency, and ensure harmony in the agreements.

Adding communication strategies to your stakeholder matrix is a best practice.

What to Communicate

Understand what the decision-makers want to hear, but also what they may need to hear. What are their concerns, needs, and on what are they measured? Deliver this information to them.

Be honest, clear, and don't avoid bad news because of difficult information. Learn how to convey bad news in a professional way.

Many times, appropriate details for each stakeholder can be different. It may be dependent on the level in the company—the higher up in the company, the fewer details may be necessary. Ensure that you know the details if asked.

Discern the stakeholders’ needs—more financial data or possibly more technical data. Will the goals they are measured on be impacted by this change affect? Positively or negatively? Long-term or short-term impacts?

Convey the risks of the change initiative, of choosing one path over another, or the new risks that become known. Don't forget to communicate the impacts to schedule, financials, resources, other projects/initiatives, etc.

Discern assumptions through conversations. Learn assumptions about the process, the timeframe, the results, and ensure you document the details for very clear communication and a smoother rollout.

Communication plans should address all levels in the company that are impacted. Stakeholders, senior management, peers, managers, and individual contributors typically require different information. For example, senior leaders typically want bottom-line information—just the key points. Reluctance to state the bottom-line first is generally due to the expectation that the person will react negatively without the detail that convinced you. So, many times, we give them all the arguments prior to stating the bottom-line—which frustrate them even more. A more appropriate communication style is to state the bottom-line up front and list their specific concerns, and that they will be addressed as you continue. By doing this, people relax and listen knowing that you will at least speak to their interests. Of course, you will need to know their concerns—do your research.

How to Communicate

Precision Question and Precision Answer is a methodology to ask and answer questions clearly to get to root cause (Vervago®, 2010). It is critical we answer questions precisely and also ask questions precisely. For example, I'm riding along with a friend and ask, “When are we going to be there?” His response is, “Soon.” This answer frustrates me because it is vague and not what I wanted—it is accurate but not precise. If I had asked, “Can you estimate we will get there?” he would have said, “10:15” and I would be content. Learn how to ask and answer questions well to master assumptions, reduce errors, and get to root cause.

Form of Communication

Face-to-face is the form of communication with the most information exchange. Fifty-five percent of communication is non-verbal (Mehrabian, 1967, pp. 248-252). Meeting in person enables the ability to watch reactions and address potential miscommunications or concerns more rapidly. Whenever possible meet with people face to face, or if not feasible, realize that you will need to expend additional effort to ensure accurate communication.

Vocal communication, utilizing the phone and conference calls is the next best information exchange. Unfortunately, there are pitfalls in using the phone. It may be difficult to discern your audience's thoughts, they may be multitasking or not paying attention, there may be accents making the information unclear, or noise on the line that is distracting. Additionally you may have cultures that find it difficult to request clarification or oppose a point of view. Realize these drawbacks and remove them where possible.

Written communication, including email, has some positives—it can be readdressed in the future and people can take time to comprehend it. Alternatively, there is also more opportunity for miscommunication and less accurate information exchange. Our culture tends to write an email quickly and send it without reviewing it for ease of understanding, or clarity of purpose. This way of communicating should be the method least used.

When to Communicate

You should establish individual communication timing with stakeholders—daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or as events trigger the need. This may be documented as part of the communication plan or roles and/or responsibilities matrix and based in part by their quadrant on the impact/interest chart (Impact/Interest Chart, p. 7).

Many times we are scheduled to communicate, but are waiting to receive important information. We typically do not communicate early, because past experience has taught us that rescinding inaccurate information is painful. We then take time to gather all the information and many times err on communicating too late. This in turn causes non-productivity and anxiety as team members become concerned and spend time questioning the status. A very effective communication methodology is to send a “heads up” email. In this email, you state up front what information you are waiting on and when you expect to get it, and then discuss what has been accomplished and the direction the initiative is going. This keeps the team focused and productive—having the expected information at the agreed upon timing helps them feel in control and less apprehensive.

When necessary, follow up on your communications. Ensure they were received, request feedback, and follow through on commitments. Clear and appropriate communication is critical to address stubborn resistance.

Influence Skills

Excellent influence skills and influence strategies are essential to respond to stubborn resistance. Again, organizational authority alone won't make you successful (The Hay Group, 2006, pp 19-20).

Understand Your Audience

If you have an audience—multiple stakeholders with potentially various interests, be aware of who will be in attendance. Understand your own motivations and set them aside; then learn what the audience may need and what are they trying to achieve.

Frame Your Position

To influence effectively you must be able to frame your position and supporting arguments. The audience members may have different concerns. For example, in a multimillion-dollar tool rollout, a CEO may be most concerned with the cost to benefit ratio and a business manager may be more apprehensive about the impact to established goals and how that will affect his performance. A team member may be most concerned with how this initiative will help him and how it will impact his productivity, both near-term and long-term. You should include evidence that provides confidence on different aspects of the change appropriate to the audience, not what is most appealing to you.

Positioning refers to the ability to take valuable evidence and put it in a logical sequence to enable clear understanding. For example, a very experienced project manager had an issue on her project. The VP said he would make a decision to resolve the issue. The project manager connected her laptop to a projector and proceeded to scroll up and down through an email stream while trying to tell the story and compare different aspects of the situation. The VP said that although all the information might be there, he would not be able to make a good decision without being able to clearly compare the details. Do not make the same formatting mistake.

Deliver your evidence with plausibility and attractiveness. Note that all through this paper there are stories that tie the concepts together for better understanding and retention. Utilize analogies, examples, and stories where possible to help people understand your viewpoint. One caveat, do not use long stories when speaking to senior management!

Make it easy for the decision-makers to come to your conclusion using evidence that they need, in a logical way, with examples that make the information clear. If you are not a natural influencer or persuader, training could be a valuable option.

In the DISC personality types, the S stands for Steadiness, which includes 70% of all people (Marston, 1979). Those people are highly resistant to change. You can expect to receive resistance and it is in how well you manage that resistance that will determine your success.


The only constant is change. And yet, we resist. Is that resistance due to negative personal experiences? If everything always turned out for the best, we would probably welcome change. Change is associated with fear of failure, bad outcomes, being overworked, inability to meet demands, and being perceived as unintelligent or incapable. Fear of change also includes an uncertainty of what the future holds.

Change is also an action word that implies movement and requires adjustment and flexibility. To change is to move from one state to the next. Understanding that the current state is not optimum and the potential future state is much improved—only through the work associated to get there.

Because change is a part of our lives, focus on the positive results. Greater efficiencies, customer satisfaction, and profits are all attainable with the correct effort. It is the journey that is change management.


Lead your horse to water and get it to drink by handling stubborn resistance to change. Or, establish and communicate great vision, know the players and institute clear roles and responsibilities and teamwork, all while addressing unyielding opposition by utilizing exceptional communication and influence management. Either way you phrase it, these are powerful aids in the effort to achieve your goals.

As the lead of a change initiative, it is your responsibility to comprehend all aspects presented, and implement each piece well, which will significantly increase the potential for success.

This paper is an overview. There is extensive vital additional information—evaluation techniques, implementation methodologies, prioritized strategies, and best practices in implementing a successful change initiative. Please feel free to contact me at [email protected].

Marston, W. (1979). The emotions of normal people. Minneapolis, MN: Persona Press.

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of consulting psychology, 31 (3), 248-252.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

The Hay Group. (2006). Making Great Leaders: Manager Experience Participant's Guide. Leadership: Making Great Leaders Training. Philadelphia, PA: The Hay Group.

Vervago®. (2010). Home of Precision Question and Precision Answer; PQ & PA. Retrieved 6/20/2010 from

Wikipedia. (2010). The chicken and the pig. Retrieved 6/20/2010 from

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010, Cindy Margules, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, D.C.



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