Resistance to change

Change Management | 0 comments

I have recently designed a one-day change management workshop to support the group of companies’ Transformation process, dealing with the people aspects of change and transition.

One of the aspects of the transformation that management is worried about here, is resistance to change. And how to overcome it. So resistance to change is one of the topics we discuss in the workshop.

We try to explain that resistance to change is not necessarily something bad that needs to be overcome, but might be just a signal that something is wrong with the change. There are some very rational reasons why people resist change and it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people.

The definition of ‘resistance to change’ that I use is: ‘Actions taken by individuals or groups when they perceive a change is occurring that is a threat’.  Such resistance can be active or passive, covert or overt, aggressive or timid, individual or organised.

So what are the reasons that people may resist?

  • Fear of unknown: and possibly the belief that it is better to do nothing
  • Mistrust: a highly regarded leader who says change may be trusted but a new leader coming in?
  • Loss of security/control: may lose one’s job, promotion, future
  • Bad timing: in the middle of something important, or exhaustion after too much previous change
  • Individual’s perspective to change: some people prefer routine, stability and predictability
  • Loss of something of value: status, or may have been involved in setting up the old way
  • Different assessment of the situation: see the changes as genuinely negative, no benefits
  • Lack of competence: people may seldom admit this is the reason, but worry they cannot develop the new skills required
  • Temporary ‘fad’: a belief that management will not see the change through
  • Not being consulted: if you allow people to be part of the change, especially if they think they know more about the situation than the consultants, there will be less resistance
  • Misunderstanding: the reasons for change are unclear, ‘I don’t understand’
  • Poor communication: when was the last time you heard someone say ‘I wish there were less communication around here’?

When resistance occurs, it is not necessarily something to be overcome but might be just a signal that something is wrong. Why would any good leader not want to find out and understand why people are resisting? They might learn something to help them make the change more easier.

The best way to avoid resistance to change, though, is to uncover potential resistance prior to implementing change & plan to minimise it, using for example these simple questions:

  1. What is the change?
  2. Who will it impact?
  3. How will it impact them?
  4. How might they react?
  5. Plan for it (and don’t be afraid to change your mind)

However none of us are usually that clever or organized when implementing our change processes! So what are the ways to reduce or deal with resistance to change when it occurs?

In principle there are six groups of actions, three of them probably more lasting and effective than the other three. But all can have drawbacks and you will probably find yourself using a range of approaches depending on the individual or group and the reasons for their resistance.

  1. Facilitation & support: helpful in allaying fear/anxiety; training can be an important factor; leadership in listening mode and honouring the past. But this approach needs time, money, patience and may still fail with some people.
  2. Participation & involvement: involve interested parties; giving people the opportunity to take part will lead to more ownership of the changes; ask questions (talk with not talk to). However this approach can be time-consuming and needs to be managed.
  3. Education & communication: explain the logic, the need for change; needs to be timely (as early as possible); it is impossible to over-communicate (social media, storytelling, different channels of communication and repetition of message). But to be successful there needs to be good relationships between leaders and their people.
  4. Negotiation & agreement: the giving of incentives; used when it is clear someone will lose & has the power to resist. A potentially expensive option.
  5. Manipulation & Co-opting: for example giving someone a desirable role to decrease their resistance. You might temporarily win the mind but not necessarily the heart and could have a negative effect on other people.
  6. Explicit & implicit coercion: force people by threats. Is obviously high risk, but maybe an approach when high speed of change is required.

Interestingly, threats were mentioned as a strategy for overcoming resistance to change in all of the workshops. And in one it was even called the Ghengis Khan approach, giving it some local flavour, and as an approach people have seen used. But all are agreed that some of the other approaches may deliver more lasting ‘transformation’. And that taking time to understand the reasons for resistance might be a sign of strength as a leader and not weakness.


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