Frustrated By
Resistance To Change?

"I don't understand why there's such resistance to change when I've done everything I can to make this department work".
resistance-to-change-stressed_man I heard this recently from a senior manager.

As it turns out he'd implemented lots of changes without consulting anyone.

He had the best intentions, but found himself up against angry staff with their heels firmly anchored.

Resistance to change is a normal response. Our attitude towards resistance is the key to successful change.

Maybe you're a business manager frustrated because staff are resisting change. Or maybe you're an individual experiencing your own resistance to change.

Overcoming resistance - personal or organisational - depends on understanding

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Understanding Resistance

There's old wisdom that advises that we can only lean against that which resists.

This suggests that there might just be something good, or at least useful, about resistance. Discovering what this is and learning to work with it is key to understanding reluctance to change.

After all, change often occurs as a direct result of resistance. Great men, such as Nelson Mandela, are testimony to this.

Resistance can be viewed as alternative, negative, or wrong. But we need to balance this with a healthy view of resistance which points to positive processes rather than placid acceptance. Benjamin Franklin valued this, telling us that questioning authority is the "first responsibility of every citizen".

It helps to understand that resistance is a normal response and that trying to avoid any resistance is futile. Accepting this immediately allows a different response to resistance in which we anticipate it and work with it.

So why do people resist change?

It can be hard to understand, especially if you're focusing on the benefits.

While there are many reasons people resist change, most of these reasons have a common source. Fear.

Yes, most of us hold a deep fear of change and our ability to adapt. Many of the reasons for people's reluctance or refusal to change are related to the fear of change.

These fears can also be related to loss associated with the change. All change involves loss at some level and this can be difficult to contemplate.

Loss associated with change can be very practical such as loss of work, colleagues, or office environment. Or it can be less obvious, relating to concerns about loss of status, self esteem, or ability to perform new work.

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Fear of change can leave us feeling lost, confused, and torn between the need to take action and doing nothing.

Recognising resistance to change

There are a number of behaviours that are signs and symptoms of an adverse reaction to change. These include:

  • Aggression and anger

  • Unusual flare-ups of emotion

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  • Employees encouraging and mobilizing resistance

  • Staff portraying themselves as innocent victims of unreasonable expectations

  • Insensitive and disagreeable behaviour

  • Not meeting key performance areas (missing meetings and not responding to emails, for example)

  • Increased absenteeism, late arrival

  • Not responding, not listening, seems disinterested

  • Active attempts to disrupt or undermine work / projects

Of course, each of these do not necessarily mean that people are opposing change. They might be indicators, but could just as easily be indicators of other issues in the person's life.

Real resistance usually occurs after people's uncertainties and questions regarding change have not been adequately answered.

It's also worth remembering that staff can 'test' leaders in the organisation to assess boundaries and to check that leaders fulfill promises and act in accordance with their proclaimed values.

Managing resistance to change

The best laid plans and systems fail if the people side of change management is ignored.

Resistance to change is a normal response, so plan for it, expect it and accept it. Resistance does not mean that the change is bad, or that the management of change has failed. Nor does it mean that those resisting change are 'bad seeds' that need to be weeded out!

Rather anticipate resistance and direct your energy to facilitating what Kurt Lewin would refer to as the Unfreezing and Change/Transition stages.

Kurt Lewin's Force Field Analysis is a powerful strategic tool to help you analyse aspects of the change that may lead to resistance.

Assessing resistance to change is an important part of a change impact assessment that should be conducted very early in the process.

Even if you're introducing small changes don't assume that that these will be easier for people to accept - especially if they already feel threatened or have low trust in the process.

If you're aware of any indicators of resistance to change then you'll need to take some time out to listen to people's concerns. Yup, listen. Don't talk, just listen (or get someone else they trust to listen).

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The clue to overcoming resistance is understanding that you cannot avoid resistance, but you can manage it.

Remember that people experience change in personal ways. Addressing people's values when you encounter resistance to change can reduce any negative impact of resistance.

Read more about managing and overcoming resistance.

If the manager I introduced earlier had spent some time considering the impact of change and why staff might resist change his strategy could have been very different. Instead he found himself dealing with anger and resentment which is difficult to get rid of once it's entrenched.

Changing your attitude towards resistance is what's needed to ensure successful change. Anticipating resistance to change is part of a successful change management strategy and will help to keep staff motivated and positive about change.



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