By Mark Connelly Updated: 15 October 2020
"I don't understand why there's such resistance to change when I've done everything I can to make this department work".
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 is a normal response to change. 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 organizational - depends on understanding:
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 ridiculous.
When you accept this you can respond differently to resistance by anticipating it and working with it.
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...
Many of us hold a deep fear of change and doubt our ability to adapt to new expectations.
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.
Fear of change can leave us feeling lost, confused, and torn between the need to take action and doing nothing.
There are a number of behaviours that are signs and symptoms of an adverse reaction to change. These include:
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.
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 change process has failed.
Nor does it mean that those resisting change are bad people who are getting in the way of change!
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.
Get together with the change team and leadership who are not directly affected by the change and assess which groups of people will be most affected by the change.
Think about what will be changing for them, for example, technology, salary or job role. Put yourself in their position and consider what responses are most likely and how people will react.
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.
Engage with teams and the people who will be affected by the change. The idea is to understand what the barriers to adopting change may be. You can even ask what can help them overcome this resistance. Listen to what they have to say.
Yup, listen. Don't talk, just listen (or get someone else they trust to listen).
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 needs and values when you encounter resistance to change can reduce any negative impact of 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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