Resistance to Change

Do people resist change, and if so, why? There are those (e.g., Tom Peters, “Liberation Management”) who argue that change is actually easy and that people do it all the time. There are many others (e.g., Alan Deutschman, “Change or Die”), who argue that change is difficult and that even when faced with the prospect of death, many people will not give up their unhealthy habits. And in organizations, many of us have experienced the difficulties that organizational leaders have in dealing with resistance.

So when we talk about resistance to change, what exactly is this phenomenon and how to explain it? Recently, an organization that I was working in decided to implement a cost reduction initiative. The Procurement and IT functions identified the use of printers as a potential opportunity. In this company, many employees had their own individual printers connected to their computers in their offices. Procurement and IT came up with the idea of setting up networked printers that were to be located in convenient locations. Employees could then connect their computers wirelessly to these networked printers. Savings were estimated at over $2 million annually. The proposal was approved by senior management; networked printers were ordered, and communication to employees explaining the benefits of this new process was issued.

Within a few weeks, the IT staffs started to remove the individual printers from employees’ offices. The hue and cry was overwhelming. Even though the networked printers were designed to be located no more than a few yards from each employee who needed to print something, the vast majority of employees said that this was a great inconvenience. Some also objected that confidential documents would be compromised since anyone could go over to the printer and view documents as they were being printed. There was so much resistance that senior management decided to phase in the program over two years rather than implement it quickly, thus losing significant opportunity costs.

This example illustrates why many efforts to implement change do not work and how resistance works. We are creatures of habit and when we get into a routine, we don’t necessarily want to change for the sake of change – especially when something is taken away from us that we are used to.

So when we are faced with the prospect of change, we instinctively ask why. From our standpoint, the status quo was working for us, and we were comfortable with it. Why change, especially when the pain of changing is greater than the pain of staying in place.

Managers have to keep in mind four important factors in dealing with resistance to change and helping employees deal with change more effectively.

First, communicate clearly and in a straightforward manner with employees the need for change, while at the same time acknowledging their concerns. Some call this the “burning platform” message but it does not have to be that dramatic a picture. Employees need to see and be reassured that their leaders have thought through the situation, considered other alternatives and have made a decision that is in the best interests of the organization. Employees also need to feel acknowledged, and they need to be heard. So ideally this communication should be interactive. In large organizations, this might be difficult but can be done using interactive technologies and by getting managers and supervisors involved in communicating with their subordinates. While individuals will first react on the basis of “what’s in it for me,” most employees, when asked to help their company, will do so – especially when they see the benefits to the organization. Many employees are willing to make some sacrifices, especially if they feel they have been treated fairly and have been communicated to candidly. The literature on persuasion and influence strongly supports this.

Second, provide reinforcers and support. William Bridges has written extensively about the transitions individuals face during change. When a change comes, individuals need some time to absorb what this means for them. Since some employees may get into a negative spiral, it is important for the organization to provide resources and support for employees. This might take the form of informal sessions with senior management to enable employees to have their concerns addressed, or training sessions for employees to learn the new skills that will be needed as a result of the change.

Third, reinforce the positive by recognizing those individuals and groups who are embracing change, and set them up as role models. In one organization that was closing several plants, those plant managers who demonstrated outstanding leadership during the closing phase were recognized and eventually promoted to more responsible positions.

Fourth, make sure you have established measures of success and communicated these, at the beginning of the change and throughout the change process. What will success look like when the change is fully implemented? This will help employees to see that the organization is indeed benefiting from the change.

In the printer example above, senior management learned that they had to increase their communication efforts. Demonstration sessions were initiated, employees saw physically the benefits of the networked printers (all of which were faster than the printers they currently had), and employee suggestions for ensuring confidentiality of documents were put in place. Actual cost savings were communicated monthly so employees could see the progress of the change.

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About Ray Henson, Ph.D.

Ray is an Organization and Management Consultant with over 25 years experience in Human Resources, Organization Development, Change Leadership, and Project Management.

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