7 Strategies for Overcoming Resistance to Change in the Workplace

Organizational transformation is difficult

In today's world, change is the only constant that surrounds us. In business, it's no different. For employees, this can be difficult to manage and upsetting. When striving for a successful transformation we must consider the different perceptions of those initiating change, implementing it, and being impacted by it.

In this article, you’ll learn techniques to manage resistance to change more effectively. We explore the types of change, discuss what makes people react the way they do to transformational efforts, and describe strategic and tactical approaches to overcoming resistance to change in the workplace.

Creating collaborative teams with collective goals

A short while ago I discussed the challenges and attributes of high-performing teams. In modern organizations with flatter hierarchical structures, these high-impact teams are smaller, more agile, and themselves structured to benefit from individual specialization without regard for a ‘pecking order’. Even though these teams are designed to provide maximum flexibility in a constantly changing environment, it is likely that an organization will still experience resistance to change.

Overcoming resistance to change in the workplace doesn’t have to be a constant battle in a market environment where businesses are in constant flux. With a forward-looking and proactive strategy, resistance is first reduced and then eliminated.

Types of change: operational change vs social change

There are two facets to organizational transformation. The first is operational (or technical) and the second is social. Understanding the difference between the two is critical to managing resistance to change in an organization.

Within the organizational context, operational change can be explained as what we do and how we do it. For example, in an auto manufacturer a production worker may use a manual spanner to fit wheels to an axle. If that worker is then given a technologically advanced tool to do the job, that change is operational. Instead of using his strength to tighten the nut on the bolt, the worker uses different skills. He must learn these skills, but the operation is the same – fixing the wheel to the axle.

In such transformation, you may also witness social change – the way the worker interacts with others and the relationships they have. It is this type of change that evokes the most severe resistance to change.

Let’s consider that the auto worker is asked to do things differently. This involves him learning a new skill. However, the reporting line and responsibility remain unchanged. The worker is responsible for his routine. He remains responsible for reporting issues. He continues to liaise with the department’s manager. The only thing that is really changing is that the worker must learn a new technical skill to do the job he has always done. This may cause some resistance to change among those who are unsure of their ability to develop new skills, but there is no resulting social change.

Now, let’s consider that the worker is not only required to do things differently but also must adhere to imposed working routines and has a new line of report – to a supervisor rather than the senior manager as before. This is a social change that completely alters the perspective of the worker.

Reasons for resistance to change

In their work on resistance to change theory, John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger concluded that there are four common situations in which people’s resistance to change germinates and grows:

  1. Self-interest
  2. Misunderstanding and lack of trust
  3. Different evaluations
  4. Low tolerance for change

Using our example of change, we can see how different types of resistance to change develop.

1.     Self-interest

When someone believes they may lose something valuable as a result of the change, they are likely to resist the change. People focus on their own self-interests (every stakeholder has their own agenda) and not the best interests of the organization. Eventually this develops into group resistance to change.

In our example, the worker is losing his direct relationship with ‘the boss’. He feels that his voice is no longer heard, because of the new reporting line put in place. The worker will come up with reasons why the new way of doing things will not work, and small errors and any downtime will be blamed on the change.

2.     Misunderstanding and lack of trust

A lack of understanding about the implications of the change is also a driver of resistance to change. An existing lack of trust between the manager initiating change and the workers expected to implement it exacerbates this misunderstanding.

For example, if the auto worker believes that the new technology he is being asked to use will reduce the time it takes to do the job, he may believe that his job is threatened – or that he will lose overtime and experience a cut in earnings – no matter what the manager says. Trust is crucial when making organizational change.

3.     Different evaluations

This situation arises when people assess the impacts of transformation differently to their managers or others who initiate the change.

In our example, it may be that the manager initiating the change has access to information that the workers don’t have. The reorganization of reporting lines may be needed because of the need for closer collaboration with the engineering department. However, the workers on the shop floor view the change as another (unnecessary) layer of management and are suspicious that the supervisor’s real role is to micromanage the department as it prepares for redundancies.

4.     Low tolerance for change

Some people fear change because they worry that they cannot develop the skills and abilities needed. This is particularly true of projects that require rapid change – the bigger and faster the change, the harder it is for people to come to terms with.

In the book ‘The Planning of Change’, authors Warren G. Bennis, Kenneth D. Benne, and Robert Chin also discuss how personality affects individual ability to cope with change – a theme that also runs through Peter Drucker’s theories on management.

6 Strategies for overcoming resistance to change

When considering the strategies and techniques for reducing resistance to change, there are six broad areas in which organizations must operate.

1.     Communication and education

Common issues that cause resistance to change include fear of the unknown and a misunderstanding of why change is needed.

People will only accept change if they believe the risk of doing nothing is higher than the risk of changing direction. Similarly, if people don’t understand why change is needed, they will question why you are changing something that they believe works well.

Communication and education about the change should begin before it is initiated. This will help your people to rationalize the change, and ensure that individuals and teams receive adequate information to make positive judgements.

2.     Participation

A lack of belief that the organization can make effective change leads to resistance to change. Likewise, when people aren’t consulted and change is forced upon them, there is likely to be more resistance. This is especially the case if people believe their jobs will be at risk.

It is critical that the stakeholders and those implementing change are involved in its design. A collaborative effort will engage people in the change, and in the identification of potential issues and solutions. People are far less likely to resist change that they have helped to create.

Many studies have shown that participation has wide-ranging positive effects during periods of organizational change. For example, a 2011 study (Change Recipients’ Reactions to Organizational Change: a 60-Year Review of Quantitative Studies) found that participation reduces resistance to change and leads to positive effects such as change readiness and acceptance, a sense of competence, a sense of control and better trust. Participation will reduce the stress that snaps your people’s desire to change.

Another participative strategy is to employ socialization, putting people before practice and ensuring that shared values crush resistance to change.

3.     Support

Organizational transformation is usually accompanied by a change to routines, taking people out of (long-established) comfort zones. This may also lead to exhaustion, especially if the organization is subject to frequent change or business evolution.

Even if people appear to be accepting of change, it may be that they are simply resigned to it. They must be given the support needed to enable new skills to be developed and ensure that change burnout does not become a reality.

Support requires managers to develop their emotional intelligence and connect with their people. Offering adequate support is also time-consuming, requiring trained managers and leaders to employ coaching tactics to be most effective when managing change in an organization.

4.     Agreement

Resistance to change is also precipitated when people feel they will be negatively affected by its consequences. This may be because of a perception that their earnings or career potential will be harmed or that the rewards of the change are not worth the effort required.

To combat this type of resistance to change, an organization may consider offering incentives. Such incentives may include extra pay, improved benefits, or offering structured career plans. This strategy requires negotiation to reach agreement. The drawback is that such agreements can be expensive and do not guarantee engagement with change.

5.     Co-opting

People become connected to the way that things have always been done. There are often strong emotional connections to processes and procedures that employees may have been at least partly responsible for developing. To bond with the old may require a Herculean effort.

One strategy is to co-opt those who may be most resistant to change into central roles in the implementation of change initiatives. This can gain the support of would-be resistors relatively cheaply, though it does come with a caveat – placing people who are deemed to be resistant to change in such positions could give them a position from which to influence greater resistance across a wider audience.

6.     Coercion

Sometimes it is necessary to coerce people into accepting change. This is often the case where people feel they cannot learn the new skills needed or if they feel that change is a temporary fad that will be reversed.

Techniques for implementing change include wielding the threat of disciplinary action while insisting that people fall into line with required behaviors and actions. If speed of change is critical, coercion may be the only viable option.

A major drawback of this strategy is that it does not remove resistance to change, which may continue to bubble under the surface and result in a destructive atmosphere at a later date (particularly if the proposed transformation does not produce at least the outcomes promoted by the initiator of change).

7 Tactics to overcome resistance to change

Having identified the causes (or potential causes) of resistance to change in your workplace and the strategic approaches that your organization should take to overcome this resistance, the next step is to consider specific tactics and techniques for reducing resistance to change that your organization and its managers can utilize to eventually eliminate that resistance.

Leadership is an organizational imperative when managing change, and leaders who inspire a cultural shift in their staff have the greatest success in managing resistance to change in an organization.

In a 2013 PwC survey, nearly two-thirds of staff surveyed felt that a top leader is in charge of change management, and almost half felt that top leaders should be in charge of cultural change.

The good news here is that the same number of people felt that cultural change is also their responsibility.

The bad news is that only 14% saw any responsibility for change management falling on their shoulders. The harsh reality is that effective change is determined by having in place a corporate culture conducive to continual transformation. It is here that inspirational leadership in flat hierarchical structures is, perhaps, at its most potent.

Here are seven techniques for reducing resistance to change in the workplace and helping to embed engagement in your change process.

1.     Structure the team to maximize its potential

After communicating the change initiative, consider the strengths and weaknesses of each team member.

In one-to-one sessions, establish how the team member is best suited to aiding with the change initiative, and consider ways in which it may help the individual improve personal weaknesses while simultaneously taking advantage of their strengths.

Give team members appropriate roles and responsibilities that use skills to their best advantage, while also providing the potential for personal and team development. Such a personal collaboration within the team effort will help engage each team member in the change effort.

2.     Set challenging, achievable and engaging targets

Be clear in guidance about goals and targets. Break change projects into smaller milestones, and celebrate achievements. Goals should be progressive and in line with values and beliefs.

Don’t limit the creation of milestones and measurement of goal achievement to the overall effort. While these are important team milestones that will help to motivate the team to continue with maximum effort, it is also important that you consider individual progress. Seek ways to anchor personal development to the creation and continuation of team goals along the change journey.

3.     Resolve conflicts quickly and effectively

Utilize the seven methods of care-fronting to regulate and control communicative breakdowns. Encourage openness and honesty and engender an environment of mutual trust and respect.

It is imperative to engender a good team spirit, so you should consider ways in which you can do so. During periods of change, tensions may run high and personal anxieties will be heightened. Team meetings and team bonding sessions will help your people to understand and appreciate their colleagues more easily, especially if you ensure transparency of communication and a systematic approach to problem solving that encourages frank exchange of view to reach a collective and collaborative partnership.

4.     Show passion

Communicate passionately and be an example of belief in the future vision. When other people see leaders’ behaviors emulating those required by change, they more quickly come into line with the new behaviors and become change advocates themselves.

‘Where leaders tread, others follow’ is an apt edict for executives to live by. Only by being the change can you expect others to onboard the new values and behaviors expected.

5.     Be persuasive

Engage employees in change by being an energized leader. Focus on opportunities, and persuade rather than assert authority. Share experiences as you persuade change through stories that focus on positive change.

Train your storytelling brain to discover ways to explain culture, brand and the future vision with similes that help employees relate to organizational motives and goals.

6.     Empower innovation and creativity

Give opportunities for feedback and remain flexible as you alter course toward your change goals. Encourage people to be creative, to discover solutions to unfolding problems, and to become part of the change process.

Remove the fear of taking risks by framing failure as an experience from which to learn, and a necessary step on the path to success. Help people to be accountable for their own actions, while also encouraging collaboration across silos. This will aid pollination of innovative ideas in an environment in which people develop greater knowledge and expand their professional capacity to think more creatively.

7.     Remain positive and supportive

People find change unsettling, even though change is a constant in personal lives as well as professional environments. They will need the support of a positive leader who inspires free thought, honest communication and creativity, as personal and team development is encouraged.

Employees expect leaders to manage change. Inspirational leaders create a culture where change becomes the remit of all.

In Summary

Research has shown that resistance to change is a psychological and physiological reaction ("The Neuroscience of Leadership" by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz). In short, you should expect resistance to change. Managing resistance to change requires you to first understand why people resist change, then identify the causes of their resistance, before considering your strategic approach and formulating the tactics and techniques for reducing resistance to change.

Equipping your leaders with a deeper understanding of the emotional effects of change is an essential first step. With better self-awareness and social awareness, leaders and managers are more able to inspire and influence through change – and develop a winning project change team.

Contact Forward Focus today to discuss our Management Development Series, including our Energy Leadership Program that helps develop high-performing managers into inspirational leaders.

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