Leadership is about change, but what is a leader to do when faced with ubiquitous resistance? Resistance to change manifests itself in many ways, from foot-dragging and inertia to petty sabotage to outright rebellions. The best tool for leaders of change is to understand the predictable, universal sources of resistance in each situation and then strategize around them. Here are the ten I’ve found to be the most common.
Loss of control. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory. It’s not just political, as in who has the power. Our sense of self-determination is often the first things to go when faced with a potential change coming from someone else. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership.
Excess uncertainty. If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it. People will often prefer to remain mired in misery than to head toward an unknown. As the saying goes, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” To overcome inertia requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision. Leaders should create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables.
Surprise, surprise! Decisions imposed on people suddenly, with no time to get used to the idea or prepare for the consequences, are generally resisted. It’s always easier to say No than to say Yes. Leaders should avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It’s better to plant seeds — that is, to sprinkle hints of what might be coming and seek input.
Everything seems different. Change is meant to bring something different, but how different? We are creatures of habit. Routines become automatic, but change jolts us into consciousness, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Too many differences can be distracting or confusing. Leaders should try to minimize the number of unrelated differences introduced by a central change. Wherever possible keep things familiar. Remain focused on the important things; avoid change for the sake of change.
Loss of face. By definition, change is a departure from the past. Those people associated with the last version — the one that didn’t work, or the one that’s being superseded — are likely to be defensive about it. When change involves a big shift of strategic direction, the people responsible for the previous direction dread the perception that they must have been wrong. Leaders can help people maintain dignity by celebrating those elements of the past that are worth honoring, and making it clear that the world has changed. That makes it easier to let go and move on.
Concerns about competence. Can I do it? Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid. They might express skepticism about whether the new software version will work or whether digital journalism is really an improvement, but down deep they are worried that their skills will be obsolete. Leaders should over-invest in structural reassurance, providing abundant information, education, training, mentors, and support systems. A period of overlap, running two systems simultaneously, helps ease transitions.
More work. Here is a universal challenge. Change is indeed more work. Those closest to the change in terms of designing and testing it are often overloaded, in part because of the inevitable unanticipated glitches in the middle of change, per “Kanter’s Law” that “everything can look like a failure in the middle.” Leaders should acknowledge the hard work of change by allowing some people to focus exclusively on it, or adding extra perqs for participants (meals? valet parking? massages?). They should reward and recognize participants — and their families, too, who often make unseen sacrifices.
Ripple effects. Like tossing a pebble into a pond, change creates ripples, reaching distant spots in ever-widening circles. The ripples disrupt other departments, important customers, people well outside the venture or neighborhood, and they start to push back, rebelling against changes they had nothing to do with that interfere with their own activities. Leaders should enlarge the circle of stakeholders. They must consider all affected parties, however distant, and work with them to minimize disruption.
Past resentments. The ghosts of the past are always lying in wait to haunt us. As long as everything is steady state, they remain out of sight. But the minute you need cooperation for something new or different, the ghosts spring into action. Old wounds reopen, historic resentments are remembered — sometimes going back many generations. Leaders should consider gestures to heal the past before sailing into the future.
Sometimes the threat is real. Now we get to true pain and politics. Change is resisted because it can hurt. When new technologies displace old ones, jobs can be lost; prices can be cut; investments can be wiped out. The best thing leaders can do when the changes they seek pose significant threat is to be honest, transparent, fast, and fair. For example, one big layoff with strong transition assistance is better than successive waves of cuts.
Although leaders can’t always make people feel comfortable with change, they can minimize discomfort. Diagnosing the sources of resistance is the first step toward good solutions. And feedback from resistors can even be helpful in improving the process of gaining acceptance for change.
These tips will help you minimize, reduce, and make less painful, the resistance to change that you create as you introduce changes. This is not the definitive guide to managing resistance to change - but implementing these suggestions, will give you a head start.
Own the changes. No matter where the change originated - and change can show up at any point in your organization, even originating with you - you must own the change yourself. It's your responsibility to implement the change. You can only do that effectively, if you step back, take a deep breath, and plan how you will implement the change with the people you influence in your organization.
Get over it. Okay, you've had the opportunity to tell senior managers what you think. You spoke loudly in the focus group. You presented your recommended direction with data and examples to the team. The powers that be or the team leader have chosen a different direction than the one you supported. It's time for the change to move on. Once the decision is made, your agitating time is over. Whether you disagree or not, once the organization, the group, or the team decides to move on - you need to do everything in your power to make the selected direction succeed.
No biased and fractional support allowed. Even if you don't support the direction, once the direction is the direction, you owe it 100% support. Wishy-washy or partial support is undermining the change effort. If you can't buy into the fact that the chosen direction is where you are going, you can, at least, buy into the fact that it is critical that you support it. Once the direction is chosen, it is your job to make it work. Anything less is disrespectful, undermining, and destructive of the team decision.
Recognize that resistance to change is minimized if you have created a trusting, employee-oriented, supportive work environment prior to the change. If you are considered to be honest, and your employees trust you and feel loyal to you, employees are much more likely te get onboard for the change quickly. So, the efforts you have expended in building this type of relationship will serve you well during change. (They will serve you well at work, in general, but especially during times of stress and change.)
Communicate the change. You undoubtedly have reporting staff, departmental colleagues, and employees to whom you must communicate the change. How you communicate the change to the people you influence has the single most important impact on how much resistance to change will occur. If you wholeheartedly communicate the change, you will win the hearts and minds of the employees.
One of the key factors in reducing resistance to change is to implement change in an environment in which there is wide-spread belief that a change is needed. So, one of your first tasks in effective communication is to build the case for why the change was needed. (If the rationale was not communicated to you, and if you are not clear about it yourself, you will have difficulty convincing others, so consult with your manager, first.)
Specifically inform the employees about what your group can and cannot affect. Spend time discussing how to implement the change and make it work. Answer questions; honestly share your earlier reservations, but state that you are onboard and going to make the change work. Ask the employees to join you in that endeavor because only the team can make the change happen. Stress that you have knowledge, skills, and strengths that will help move the team forward, and so does each of the team members. All are critical.
Help the employees identify what's in it for them to make the change. A good portion of the normal resistance to change disappears when employees are clear about the benefits the change brings to them as individuals. Benefits to the group, the department, and the organization should be stressed, too. But, nothing is more important to an individual employee than to know the positive impact on their own career or job.
Additionally, employees must feel that the time, energy, commitment, and focus necessary to implement the change are compensated equally by the benefits they will attain from making the change. Happier customers, increased sales, a pay raise, saved time and steps, positive notoriety, recognition from the boss, more effective, productive employees, and an exciting new role or project are examples of ways in which you can help employees feel compensated for the time, energy, focus, change, and challenge that any change requires.
Listen deeply and empathetically to the employees. You can expect that the employees will experience the same range of emotions, thoughts, agreement, and disagreement that you experienced when the change was introduced to you or when you participated in creating the change. Never minimize an employee's response to even the most simple change. You can't know or experience the impact from an individual employee's point of view. Maybe the change seems insignificant to many employees, but the change will seriously impact another employee's favorite task. Hearing the employees out and letting them express their point of view in a non-judgmental environment will reduce resistance to change.
Empower employees to contribute. Control of their own jobs is one of the five key factors in what employees want from work. So, too, this control aspect follows when you seek to minimize resistance to change. Give the employees control over any aspect of the change that they can manage. If you have communicated transparently, you have provided the direction, the rationale, the goals, and the parameters that have been set by your organization. Within that framework, your job is to empower the employees to make the change work. Practice effective delegation and set the critical path points at which you need feedback for the change effort - and get out of the way.
Create an organization-wide feedback and improvement loop. Do these steps mean that the change that was made is the right or optimal change? Not necessarily. You must maintain an open line of communication throughout your organization to make sure that feedback reaches the ears of th employees leading the charge. Changing course or details, continuous improvement, and tweaking is a natural, and expected, part of any organizational change. Most changes are not poured in concrete but there must be a willingness to examine the improvement (plan - do - study - act).
If you implement your change in an organizational environment that is employee-oriented, with transparent communication and a high level of trust, you have a huge advantage. But, even in the most supportive environment, you must understand and respond to the range of human emotions and responses that are elicited during times of intense change.