The degree of resistance to change naturally varies from business to business. However, a universal truth in change management is that you will face resistance.
Change management is the glue that holds together the new ways of working with strategy, ensuring continuous improvement. Whether you’re implementing new local IT systems or overseeing the organizational restructure of a global company, your ability to resolve resistance will make or break the project.
Preparation actually begins prior to readying your people for change; first, you need to prepare yourself for potential resistance. Before you even begin dealing with an individual who has reduced their output in protest, or pacifying a hostile workplace, or stifling a spike in resignations, you need to be aware of the full life-cycle of resistance: the causes, symptoms and remedies.
Misunderstanding the need for, or nature of, the change
Often, resistance is the result of a lack of information. Do employees fully understand their role in the change? Have you communicated how change will affect staff in their day to day work processes?
This level of resistance is not resolved just by informing employees, but by persuading them: has the vision of the project and its purpose been explained? Are employees aware of the facts and figures that outline the project’s potential benefits to the company?
There are many ways you can informatively outline a transformation while arguing for its implementation: a presentation, webinar, video, training sessions, etc. A question-and-answer session is not only a great way to ensure employees have acquired the necessary knowledge, but also particularly useful for demonstrating to everyone that you are committed to inclusivity and that their opinions are respected and could be influential.
Fear of change can be purely physiological, a chemical reaction deeply rooted in someone’s genetic or cultural makeup. In such cases, people need to be eased into a transition with patience and time.
In other instances, employees may doubt they have the necessary skills to adapt to a new process. Perhaps a re-organization might have a social impact, changing working relationships that employees are used to and that are a major part of their working life. And where there’s talk of downsizing – as can often be the case in a transitional change – employees might fear for their job security.
Change might be beneficial for the business, but employees will no doubt consider other factors more closely related to their individual needs. Leaders of change must listen to, and reassure, their staff.
The status quo
‘Old habits die hard.’ ‘We’re creatures of habit.’ These idioms exist for a reason. The truth is that some people find the status quo too comfortable to let go.
While this kind of reaction might be deeply ingrained, it can be overcome with persuasion. These employees need to be shown both the benefits of new ways of working and the damage done by old ways.
Use metrics to demonstrate the inefficiencies of current systems and processes, alongside case studies of other organizations that have reaped the benefits from the change you’re implementing. But don’t just detail the business case – clearly illustrate how this change will benefit the employee on an individual level.
Lack of belief in the change
Employees might have reasonable conceptual disagreements with suggested changes on a tactical or strategic level. Their refusal to comply with new practices, for instance, might not be out of mere self-interest but what they perceive to be for the good of the company.
On the other hand, employees might think change is necessary, but doubt it can be achieved – perhaps the organization has failed in its previous transformative projects, causing a deep-rooted skepticism in otherwise supportive staff.
Skepticism can be overcome with strong project management, incorporating clear timelines, achievable milestones, workflows, and hierarchical organization.
Regardless of the roots of this skepticism, it’s important to listen to the objections, ask questions, and, crucially, encourage suggestions. By doing so, you a) might gain insight into ideas or objections you hadn’t considered, and b) will be giving the skeptic a sense of involvement and influence that will inevitably bring them closer to on-boarding.
Perhaps most difficult to resolve is resistance that isn’t rooted in a rejection of the change itself but in the individual’s perception of the people driving that change. This could be due to past personal or professional clashes; or maybe there’s a feeling of 'us vs. them' and that the driver of change represents an unchallengeable authority figure. No matter the reason, we all know that the time it takes to destroy trust is a tiny fraction of the time it takes to build it.
Preparation for this level of resistance takes time, too, and if you suspect your relationship with an employee might affect your ability to implement change, you need to re-build trust long before you communicate the plans for change. If an employee can’t see beyond the person delivering change, how will they ever see the benefits?
Try to observe how such employees respond to the way you talk to them and adapt accordingly. Once you’ve helped the employee open up about their issues, this will ease communications in the long term so that resistance doesn’t stall the project.
Tips to avoid or efficiently overcome these reactions
Change will affect different employees in different ways, and awareness programs must cater to the particular needs of a department/individual. It’s not just a case of outlining the tactical or even the strategic changes; sessions should also be an opportunity to explore employees’ experiences of change in the workplace and to brainstorm about why people might resist change. Take the time to walk them through the detail, as well as the consequences to them, and their role in the change, and you will likely see their engagement soon become buy-in.
As such, awareness programs present a uniquely inclusive environment to discuss the strategy of change, and demonstrate to staff that their opinion/feelings are being considered.
In some instances of change, such as a significant cultural shift, you might need to schedule a longer, more substantial period of training.
Bring in assistance to manage resistance
If senior leaders and shareholders can demonstrate their endorsement of the vision for change, this may help get buy-in from resistant employees. Likewise, enlisting the support of managers closer to the front-line work of employees could be a major influence on levels of trust. Recognize the political aspect to managing change, and bring on board support from senior figures that staff trust and admire. Find the influential person who sways opinion, and could even become the spoke-person of your program.
Bring in someone external
Do you have the resources to manage resistance, let alone the change itself? An external agent whose time is dedicated completely to the change management can ensure that employees’ time is freed up for other operations.
An objective agent has a fresh perspective and no vested interest in the previous ways of working, which can help their role as a trusted advisor to the team. However, it’s important to be tactful here – someone new telling experienced staff that they are doing their job inefficiently might not receive the warmest welcome.
Remember to have someone on the team who is a trained and experienced Change Manager. It’s a job that requires a certain skill, and not all shared services leaders or transformation heads have it.
Make the project a real, tangible thing by giving it a name that expresses your vision and encourages support. Include colleagues in updates of project progress and milestones achieved – you could do this via social media, newsletters, monthly meetings, etc.
Communication is central to change management. It ensures the change is visible, which fosters trust. And, of course, employees must be well-informed about the project and how it will affect them.
Resolving resistance isn’t just pivotal to the success of your current project; an unsuccessful project could bias employees against the concept of other changes in the future. A set of KPIs to measure the effects of the change will not only help you adapt present adjustments, but prepare you for the inevitable upcoming changes that are vital to the organization’s continued competitiveness.
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