Humans naturally prefer stability and comfort over change in both our personal and professional lives. Overcoming resistance to change is one of the most challenging parts of making any organizational change.
Whether you're changing a business process, restructuring a department or company, or implementing new enterprise software, you will likely encounter pushback and resistance to change from employees.
Combating resistance needs to be a part of your overall change management plan and strategy. In this guide, we'll provide an overview of the best approaches for dealing with resistance to change.
We'll start by examining the top reasons employees resist change; then, we'll explore six proven strategies for overcoming resistance to change. Finally, we'll review some best practices to ensure your organizational change is successful.
4 Reasons Why Employees Resist Change
Reason 1: Fear and Low Tolerance
Many employees dislike change because they are afraid. They fear that they won't have the time to develop the new skills and behavior required of them, which leads to insecurity.
A lack of time to adapt also leads to the fear that they'll appear incompetent in front of their colleagues. Adjustments could also lead to a loss of some relationships and activities, and an establishment of others.
Reason 2: Self-Interest
Some people might perceive that a change means they will lose power, whether that is significant decision-making power or the power of influence on their team. Other people might see one change as a sign that more changes are coming, which they could perceive as a threat.
If someone believes that a change means that their job is at risk, they are very likely to resist the change. They will push back on any effort that they perceive as a potential threat to their current situation.
Reason 3: Lack of Trust
If there is already a lack of trust between the manager and his or her employees, then employees are likely to resist when the manager introduces a change. While it's difficult to establish a high level of trust between employees and managers, managers must work on these relationships.
Without trust, misunderstandings develop, and employees are less likely to "buy in" to essential changes. Managers need to quickly clear up any misconceptions so that resistance does not build and deepen across an organization.
Reason 4: Poor Communication
How the change is communicated to employees is extremely important. If a change isn't communicated in its entirety, or if it's only communicated to a particular group of people, other affected employees will likely resist. The way the change is communicated determines how employees will react.
If a manager can't describe the process of exactly what needs to be changed, how the changes will be implemented, and how the change will improve things, then resistance should be expected.
Resistance to change is natural and should be expected. Employees fear losing relationships, activities, and even their jobs. Sometimes, they don't trust that the change is worth the costs or that their manager knows what he or she is doing.
It's vital to address resistance to change. By building trust and communicating the change clearly, managers can work against an employee's impulse to resist and cultivate an environment that's accepting of change.
Strategies for Dealing With Resistance to Change
Once you've identified potential sources of resistance to change, you will need to implement specific strategies to address employees' concerns. Students of change management theory are likely familiar with John Kotter. He developed a widely used 8 step process for change management.
Kotter’s work also includes a set of six strategies managers can use to overcome resistance to change. Here is a brief overview of the six strategies and when to use each of them.
Strategy 1: Education & Communication
One of the chief sources of resistance is a misunderstanding of the change and the reasons for it. That means that your top strategy for overcoming resistance is to educate and clearly communicate with your organization's employees and stakeholders.
The rumor mill can be vicious, so make sure that you're transparent to prevent misinformation. Of course, this strategy only works alone if there are no other significant sources of resistance.
Strategy 2: Participation & Involvement
People like to feel as though they're a part of things. If they believe they lack control or that their input doesn't matter, they're more likely to show resistance to change.
Make sure that you involve employees in the change, through seminars, working groups, committees, and other ways that people can give feedback and ask questions — or even be part of the change.
The primary drawback of this strategy is that you could have "too many cooks in the kitchen" and experience a drawn-out change process.
Strategy 3: Facilitation & Support
Many employees associate change with cutbacks and lost opportunities. Transition is difficult for everyone, so make sure your management team is equipped to fully support employees who feel nervous about the change.
You may need to expand your counseling and mentoring options, offer extended training, or fully communicate employees’ new opportunities for growth and promotion. If the primary source of resistance is anxiety about one’s future or role within the organization, this strategy can work very well.
A digital adoption solution, like Apty, can provide on-screen guidance to walk users through the changes step-by-step.
Strategy 4: Negotiation and Agreement
Sometimes, members of the organization will simply not adapt to change. Perhaps they have a vested interest in the way things were, or the change would unseat them from a position of power.
Have a plan to allow for negotiations and natural transitions out of the organization or into a new position within the organization. This approach can be expensive but may be useful when the change involves major disruptions to your current org chart.
Strategy 5: Manipulation and Co-optation
This strategy may not be advisable for all organizations. It is the practice of asking a pivotal individual to or group to take a prominent leadership role in the company or the change management initiative for the sole purpose of influencing the people who follow them.
The position is only symbolic, though, as the real leaders have no interest in the person's input and are only seeking to manipulate their political or social sphere. Co-optation can easily backfire if people learn that they've been misled or manipulated.
Save this strategy for situations when transformation needs to happen quickly and inexpensively, and other methods won't work.
Strategy 6: Explicit and Implicit Coercion
In extreme circumstances, it may not be feasible to take your time with prolonged communication and education efforts. The coercion strategy involves the change management team forcing employees of the organization to accept the change.
Those who refuse to adapt or comply will be fired or demoted. In situations where you expect a lot of resistance but must make a change quickly, this strategy may be the only option.
Selecting a Strategy for Overcoming Resistance to Change
To choose the best combination of strategies to overcome resistance to change, evaluate your organization's unique needs.
What are the primary sources of resistance? Is a massive education/training effort feasible? Are there people in powerful positions who may need to transition?
Once you thoroughly audit your current structure, plan out your strategy to hinge on those needs. When done well, you can proceed with the change effort with minimal disruption to your organization's output and integrity.
Best Practice for Dealing With Resistance to Change
No matter which strategies you deploy, organizational change will probably produce anxiety or aversion in your employees. A change management team needs to fully assess their organization's unique needs and anticipate any sources of resistance to the change.
By incorporating these seven best practices into their change management plans, leaders can help the transition happen more smoothly and quell any concerns.
Address the social aspects of the change
Employees may be accustomed to long-standing traditions and structures, such as reporting to a particular person or documenting their work a certain way. When change starts happening, they may perceive the transition as a threat to their way of doing things.
Others may be concerned about losing their valued working relationships or reporting to a new boss. Keep these concerns in mind and consider offering new mentorship or support opportunities to ease anxiety.
Identify any existing trust issues and be transparent
While change can undoubtedly affect the trust that employees have with the management team, existing trust issues will be exacerbated. Those who don't trust management are more likely to be suspicious of change — and therefore resistant to it.
That's why it's essential to be fully transparent during the transition so that even if trust has been/is damaged, employees can start to build it with management.
Communicate the logic for the change
For those not in a management position, some changes might seem to be "progress for progress' sake." If they don't have the information about why a change is needed or how it might improve their efficiency, they're more likely to dismiss it as a cumbersome new procedure or a power play by management. Always be open about why the change is happening, and show your employees any relevant data.
Be mindful of people’s skill gaps
Sometimes, people simply don’t have the competencies to meet new procedures. This is especially true for technological transitions. Rather than taking the resistance as simple aversion, take note of employees’ concerns about their ability to perform their jobs.
Additional training or new equipment options might be in order. Again, this is an area when you can utilize a digital adoption solution to overcome employee’s technical skills gaps.
Have a plan for those who will be negatively affected
Change will always leave someone in the lurch if positions have been eliminated or shuffled. Any changes to the org chart will breed resentment and potentially an employee exodus if not managed well.
The change management team needs to anticipate pushback from people who are inconvenienced by the change, then create a robust transition plan for those who are leaving positions or occupying new ones.
Give team members a chance to participate.
When change is happening, people are likely to feel confused and nervous. Handing them a measure of control or power over the situation can alleviate their anxieties and decrease resistance to change.
Look for ways to bring your team members on board with the change, such as giving them the chance to provide feedback or make small decisions about how change will happen in their department.
Be ready to deal with conflict
A strong team spirit and collaboration will help make the change more manageable, so it's well worth your time to conduct team-building exercises. Latent employee conflicts will come out during transitional periods, so ensure that you set up mediation procedures.
The management should use their emotional intelligence to help resolve issues and ensure a smooth transition for everyone.
Key Takeaways for Dealing With Resistance to Change
Change can be scary. To effectively make change happen in your organization, take the time to thoroughly plan your approach, and set up any necessary support systems.
Remember, people may be resistant to the change for several reasons. The change management team should anticipate these sources of resistance and take a transparent, constructive approach when addressing them.
By selecting the right strategies for dealing with resistance to change and following the best practices in this guide, you can empower a more efficient, streamlined change process.