Why Workers Resist Change

Resistance to ChangeA client and I were recently discussing the natural resistance that accompanies most organizational change efforts when he quipped, “the only people who like change are wet babies!”  Well said.

Change is a part of our every day lives.  The pace of change is rapidly accelerating in workplaces.  Companies simply must keep up with the constant marketplace demands of change if they are to survive, much less thrive in this economy.

The ability to manage change effectively is a complex requirement of most managers and leaders in today’s workplaces.  Understanding how human’s process change is an important part of learning how to manage workplace change. The most challenging part of this equation is the “people” component.

Some of us are more receptive to change than others.  I’ve witnessed a worker revolt because of the need to move their desk by a foot! Others embrace almost any change as an exciting new opportunity or a deterrent to boredom.  Picture a typical bell curve when it comes to change.  About 20% of workers will be on the far end of the continuum of “Like change, bring it on!” while another 20% is on the other far end, “Not only no but —- no!”  The other 60% is in the middle and on the fence about the change; these are the folks you want to target your change management efforts towards.

Understanding the nature of change is important if you are going to succeed in your attempts at managing change in the workplace.  Humans seek control.  We tend to fear, dislike and avoid ambiguity.  We “react” negatively when our expectations for the way things should be aren’t met.  One rule of thumb–the more surprised we are by the change, the greater resistance you can expect.

It takes time for us to process and accept change.  Most initially respond to a change we didn’t create with disbelief and denial, “I can’t believe this is happening!”  This is usually the first stop on the change journey followed by resistance– picture arms crossed in defiance!  The next step is exploration, “OK, I guess we can try it anyway, do you have more information?” Exploration however is dependent on whether or not change is consistently well sponsored and communicated from leaders.  Once we have dipped our big toe into the change water and find it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated, most of us will finally move to commitment (“I can support the change in this way”).

A few coaching tips to increase the likelihood of your change effort sticking:

  • Most humans are tuned into their own personal radio station-WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?)  Leaders trying to manage change should broadcast on this station to answers their typical questions like:  What will get better as a result of the change?  Worse? How much control do we have over what happens?  Can we assimilate this change at a reasonable pace?  Do we understand the micro/macro implications of the change?
  • People are more likely to support and commit to change they have helped create or design.  Involve your people (particularly the front line or “end users” of the change) early in the creation of the change.  Consult with them about their opinions.  What obstacles do they foresee?  How would they like to see the change rolled out?  What will work (or not) for them regarding the change?
  • Communicate often and consistently about the change.  Yes this will mean you have to repeat yourself—in my experience, most leaders greatly under communicate about change.  Use all available forums of communication available—intranet, email, phone, meetings and of course face-to-face conversations reinforcing the need and requirements for the change.  Wise sponsors of change know that what will dictate whether or not the change is adopted is their commitment and time spent shepherding it through the organization.
  • Allow people an opportunity to talk about and “vent” their frustrations about the change.  Yes, this may turn into a gripe session but better to get it out in the open and aired than for resistance to go underground.  Truly listening to understand what how your people feel about the change is important.    Once we feel “heard” we are more likely to move on.  Your people want to know that you care about them and how they will be impacted by the change. If you don’t respect them enough to at least hear them out about it—expect ongoing and potentially damaging resistance.

Help Staff Buy Into Organizational Change

Today’s leaders are responsible for making a broad base of decisions, from the mundane to strategic decisions that may affect the survival of the entire organization. Achieving organizational alignment is one of the greatest challenges they face.

Leaders managing large-scale change can lose sight of the fact that human beings naturally resist change and have a finite capacity to absorb it.

The amount of information thrown at us today is mind-boggling. We are literally overloaded. Important information can easily be lost in the flood. How many of us have been asked, “Didn’t you see that e-mail?” Um, maybe you missed it along with the other 150 e-mails in your inbox!

Many organizations today are paralyzed by the amount of change management asks them to address, ranging from new policies, products and services to the latest software programs that touch almost everyone in the workplace.

We have all been exposed to management introducing the “program of the month.” Often the end results are predictable — nothing much changes.

If we’re on the front line or an end user of the changed program and we’re not involved in its creation, we naturally resist it — and grumble beneath our breath that management just doesn’t get it. In these cases, workers typically just wait it out, hoping the current program dies.

The lesson for leaders (or those tasked with creating change) is to spend your change chits wisely and involve others in your process.

When evaluating that new initiative or program, no matter how good it looks on paper, do some organizational testing and involve the participants the program will affect. This will greatly increase the probability of buy-in and commitment.

Consulting with the front-line implementers or end users is critical; after all, they will be the ones most affected.

There are techniques to help facilitate effective decision-making, particularly in a team environment. Skilled facilitators have tools, techniques and processes for helping groups make critical decisions.

How decisions are being made directly affects the quality of the decision itself and the probability of success. When facing decisions that have major organizational consequence, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Have I gathered sufficient information to identify the problem accurately?
  • Who else might I consult with (that I haven’t considered yet) who will be affected by this decision? Whom could my decision harm or help?
  • Develop objectives: What short- and long-term results am I trying to achieve?
  • Identify evaluation criteria (i.e., resource requirements, risks) and alternatives.
  • What is the best approach to ensure buy-in and commitment by those who will carry out the decision?

Now that a decision to change has been made, how do you manage it to ensure ongoing buy-in and commitment?

Here are a few tips:

  • Communicate expectations, recognition and rewards.
  • Solicit and support ongoing input and feedback for improvements on the program and process.
  • Call attention to benchmark achievements and program success.
  • Set the expectation that the success of the program will be measured and communicated.
  • Identify accountability — who will be responsible for what by when?
  • Make it your priority.

Quality and timely decisions are critical to organizational success (and, in the end, what most leaders are judged by). Creating organizational alignment is an undeniable competitive advantage. But it is easier said than done. How decisions are made, communicated and managed have significant impact on the people and the organization.

As an executive coach, I regularly help clients with change.  Call me at 360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com for my help.  I Skype with clients all over the world!