Managing Change: Why Resistance Happens and How to Counter it

This article is part 2 of a 3 part series.

In my last post, I talked about how to define change resistance, what some of the key behaviours to look out for are and what change resistance is not. This post will outline why resistance happens and what you need to do to ensure it doesn’t happen or counter it.

Why Resistance Happens

Great idea — but could place a little pressure on the project budget….

Fear of the unknown: This happens mainly when change is implemented without warning the impacted groups beforehand. When change (particularly when it’s perceived as negative) is pushed onto people without giving them adequate warning or helping them through the process of understanding what the change will include and how their jobs/work will be affected, it can cause people to push back.

Lack of trust: If a team or department highly respect their leaders because they have built up trust over a period of time, the team will be more accepting of any changes. If management is new and has not yet earned the trust of their employees, then mistrust can manifest itself into resistance to change. Similarly mistrust may occur because of changes that were implemented badly in the past.

Fear of loss: If people think they will be worse off as a result of the change, they won’t fully support it. Fears around job security arise when restructuring (every 6 months at most large Australian companies these days) or offshoring happens. This causes fear among employees that they will lose their jobs or be moved into other positions. Loss of control could come about as a result of process changes (eg — someone might be an integral part of a process which will no longer be followed). It could also be because a loss of status as a result of the change (eg — they could be an ‘expert’ in a legacy system that is about to be decommissioned, now that person is a beginner learning the new system the same as everyone else).

Poor timing: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pressured to implement initiatives in December, right before Christmas! In retail! When it’s the busiest sales period of the year! It’s usually because the executive sponsor has a KPI to implement the project within the year or quarter, so all logic and concern goes out the window if there’s a whiff of an executive not getting their bonus. Heaping too much change on to your staff over a short period of time can cause change fatigue. Today’s change fatigue will be tomorrow’s change resistance. If change is not implemented at the right time you can have major resistance and adoption issues.

An individual’s openness to change Some people just don’t like change. The folks who are set in their ways (they might say things like ‘this is how we’ve always done things here’) are usually the people who are suspicious of change and likely to resist. Most people are open minded towards change as they might be getting an opportunity to do something new or develop professionally. Some however may recognise that changes within their company mean new or different skills are required, and worry that they might not be able to learn the skills or be the right cultural fit once the change is implemented.

Failure to create an environment conducive to change. Often a response to a proposed change may be positive however can soon turn negative, because of reasons including:

  • Failure to commit sufficient resources to the change (eg not hiring a change manager or having enough staff on the project team, skimping on necessary software and going with a cheaper or less customised option that may not be the best, being stingy about training, go to market or launch activities).
  • Failure to prove the case for change — if people don’t understand or agree with the reason for the change it will be very hard to convince them to adopt it.
  • Failure to tie the change to company values
  • Failure to allow front line staff or end users to participate in the change
  • Past failure to implement change
  • Failure to understand the impact of the change and plan accordingly.

So much fail. All of which make the change manager’s job so much harder

How to Manage Resistance to Change

OK, now that we have successfully identified the key reasons for resistance to change, we can talk about how to deal with it. Firstly, and of course I am going to say this, make sure you carry out good change planning (maybe like, hire a good change manager, or something even?) and try to anticipate areas of resistance, so you can plan ahead as to how to deal with them. Being aware of potential pockets of resistance will help you implement the change with fewer issues.

Prior to making changes that will affect others, it’s important to carefully think through:

  • What the specific changes are
  • Who will be impacted
  • How it will impact them
  • How they might react

Otherwise known as a change impact assessment! And not just what you think, run it by some representatives from the impacted area and get it peer reviewed. Getting input from people who are different to you (eg if you are extrovert get input from an introvert, if you are tech savvy ask the opinion of a luddite), have a different perspective, work in different roles in your company — or if you are able to, actual customers — will help address any personal blind spots you might have.

As an example, a few years ago I had a high performing, super intelligent grad helping me with the change management for new technology in a retail environment. She was tasked with completing the change impact assessment and she really struggled to think about how people working in the retail outlet would be impacted. She said ‘if this was me I would just do it. I can’t understand why we need training, they will just pick it up.’ Because she was so tech-savvy and probably also an actual genius, she had no awareness or understanding that others might find it really baffling to just use a new piece of technology and would quickly revert back to the old way of doing things without being shown how to use it and supported well if issues arose during implementation.

Developers are also extremely guilty of this. Every time I hear ‘it’s been designed to be intuitive enough so that anyone can just pick it up and use it, no training is required’, it raises a huge red flag with me. Sure, anyone who is also a UX designer can use it without being shown but can your grandma or a regular person who just isn’t very technically savvy use it?

May as well walk into Mordor and get eaten by orcs….

Next, write down how to plan on implementing the change — including a detailed timeline, communication & training plans, potential points of resistance and who will do what. Otherwise known as a change plan! Socialise it in the same way I’ve outlined above. If you are a leader who has hired a change manager to help you lead the change, ask them to walk you through all of these documents so you have a detailed understanding of what is happening when, and what is expected of you in terms of leading and role modelling the change. Make sure key stakeholders and impacted staff are across the plan, so there are no surprises when implementation begins.

So, you’ve done your impact assessment, change & implementation planning, executed well on those plans, but you are still encountering resistance! Here are some tips for countering each of the types of change resistance I mentioned earlier:

Fear of the unknown
  • Communicate (this does NOT mean just sending an email!!). Make sure you give people an early heads up about the change, what it means and how it will affect them. Be clear, direct and honest. Don’t be vague and tailor messaging to the audience.
  • Make sure relevant training is completed and is effective. Staff need to be comfortable that they will have the necessary know how to be able to do their jobs (and under pressure too — eg in front of an angry customer!!) when the change is implemented.
  • Make sure there is support for staff and they know they won’t be left high and dry after a change is implemented, and the project team have all packed up and gone home. Examples include Intranet resources, toolkits, FAQ, peer support, super users, SMEs, hypercare and post deployment support. Ensure this is known upfront by impacted staff.
Lack of trust
  • Make sure managers and executives are on board with the change and are leading by example
  • Have ‘change champions’ at all levels of the organisation, so new ideas are being championed by peers as well as managers & executives.
  • Get your front line or impacted teams involved in the change (from the beginning, not just when things start going wrong) and encourage two way communication. You need to ask teams for ideas and suggestions, not in a backhanded way as part of a box-ticking exercise, but in a straightforward way to get some good ideas and avoid some unnecessary mistakes.
  • Make sure feedback is addressed and ideas/suggestions are implemented, issues are resolved etc. Many people become passively resistant because they feel like their ideas and feedback hasn’t been listened to or acted upon. Creating a safe environment where people can openly and honestly discuss issues and make suggestions is imperative.
  • Make sure the right people are on board and they are able to prioritise your project or initiative.
Fear of loss
  • Don’t sugar coat it. If people are losing something, tell them. Similarly if people won’t be losing anything make this known upfront as well.
  • Be respectful. Ensure impacted people are the first to know, not the last. Give people time to absorb the change and expect a broad range of reactions.
  • Be honest and authentic — obviously reading from a script provided by HR is a no-no, as is using lots of corporate jargon or being vague.
Bad Timing
  • Get your frontline or impacted people involved in the change (from the beginning, not just when things start going wrong) and encourage two way communication. They will give you a good early heads up about what timing will work for them. Make sure feedback is addressed and ideas/suggestions are implemented, issues are resolved etc
  • Speak to people in other business units and get an idea of what other changes might be impacting a specific group of people at a given time. Be prepared to be flexible
  • Upwardly manage executive expectation. This may involve saying no. Ensure projects are implemented when the time is right for customers or staff, not senior management.
  • Provide a clear vision and reason for the change along with schedule of what to expect and when to expect it (you know, like a change plan or something idk)
People with a poor predisposition towards change
  • Give them some space. Work on your early adopters. They will eventually get on board as they see their peers making changes and realising the benefits
  • Use your change champions — by having members of their peer group adopt the change and talk about how well it is working for them, people are often more likely to listen to their peers than management
  • Use the ‘Five ‘Whys’. Ask probing questions about the reasons there is opposition to the change. You might be surprised by what you find out. Quite often the first reason given for opposing a change is not the real reason.
Failure to create an environment conducive to change

All those things that you failed to do? Try to do them. Learn from past mistakes. Upwardly manage your executive sponsors. Ensure the consequences of certain actions are known.

I hope you found this information useful. In the 3rd and final instalment of this series, I’ll be sharing additional tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way (usually by making mistakes — so you don’t have to!).

This article first appeared on Casa de Cambio and has been republished here with permission.

Cover image: Shutterstock

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