Manage Resistance To Change 

By Mark Connelly       Updated: 15 October 2020

Resistance to change should not take you by surprise.

If you expect objections and plan to deal with them you can manage challenges before they're even raised.

The key is to start planning as early as possible.

Predicting reasons people might object to change gives you the chance to plan your change project so that you address their concerns.

Planning to manage resistance to change

I've seen tense moments between staff and managers where I've wished more thought had been given to the way change was presented and how people will react to it.

When you don't include resistance to change in your planning you end up managing emotions, tensions, and even conflict.

Spending an hour with employees who need to express their anger is not an easy thing to do. 

You quickly realise that you had not planned for the issue being raised and that most of your resources will be directed to managing the challenge rather than guiding change.

You're on the back foot.

Your only hope of keeping the change on track is to manage their concerns.

Yet this extreme can be avoided by taking the time to think about the concerns people will have and plan how to address them, before change is formally communicated.

Assess Why People May Object To Change

Spend plenty of time thinking about the common reasons people might object to the changes being considered. Use some of the ideas listed on this page to give you insight about the kind of concerns you may face.

Collaborate with the change team and leaders not affected by the change. Consider who the change will impact most and why they may object.

You can use a tool such as the Force Field Analysis to help you identify factors that support change and those that are obstacles to change.

Focus Groups And Interviews

Make use of focus groups and interviews with people who will be affected by change. At this stage your role is to listen.

The information you gather will be used to formulate your strategy for managing the change.

Explain the change

Briefly provide an overview of the expected change and let people know that you are there to listen to them.

Don't try and answer questions or defend the change at this time. Guarantee confidentiality. Watch and listen to their reactions and concerns. These will give you great pointers to potential areas of resistance.

Ask questions

Don't be afraid to ask direct questions at this time. In addition to asking about general responses to the proposed change you can also ask about specific concerns. The answers you get may help you identify potential areas of resistance.

People who raise concerns can also be a great resource for solutions. Ask what they'd need to help them move past the concerns they raised. "If the change was inevitable what would help you most to address the concerns you raised, and support you to adopt the change"?

Ideally, you'll get great ideas that you can use to support the change and limit resistance to change.

Lastly, ask who in the organization can best support them in the process and help them overcome potential concerns. Generally, people like support from their direct managers and senior leadership. Listening to their responses can help you identify who should be coaching and supporting them as the change is introduced.

Reassure people that they have been heard and that their answers are valuable. When people feel heard, and validated, they can become a powerful resource and advocate for change.

Is It Resistance, Or A Normal Response?

Before you interpret people's reaction to change as resistance, take a moment to reflect.

Ask yourself if you are experiencing a fundamental disagreement to the change. Or, could this be normal behaviour and a coping strategy?

There are many normal reactions to change and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about some of them. She viewed these as coping strategies rather than resistance.

Reflecting on this can determine your response, and make the difference between confronting resistance and supporting people to move through normal stages as they respond to change.

Typical Reasons For Resistance To Change

Fear of change: One of the most common reasons for opposition is fear of change. This includes fears of not being able to perform or not being "good enough". People also fear uncertainty and the unknown. It's a bit like the sailors of old who feared the uncharted oceans.

The solution? Put it on the map - address the fears people might have and provide people with role models or mentors.

Not being consulted: If people are able to feel that they are a part of the change there is a lot more motivation to be part of the journey. They feel heard. Yet, time and again, I encounter friction due to a lack of involvement.

The solution? Involve people in the change as early as possible.

resistance to change stop sign

Poor communication: It's self evident isn't it? I'm sure I don't need to explain this one. WRONG!

When it comes to change management there's no such thing as too much communication.

The solution? Say it strategically, but don't remain silent.

Changes to routines: When we talk about comfort zones we're really referring to routines. We love them. They make us feel secure and efficient. So there's bound to be resistance whenever change requires us to do things differently.

Whether it's new procedures, new parking places, new reporting lines, or new corporate culture, changes to routines can be uncomfortable.

The solution? Show people how it will work and demonstrate the need for change.

Low trust: When people don't believe that they, or the company, can competently manage the change there is likely to be resistance. This may be related to their experience of change in the past.

The solution? Communication. Lots of it. And evidence that top management support the change process.

Misunderstanding about the need for change: If staff do not understand the need for change you can expect resistance. Especially from those who strongly believe the current way of doing things works well...and has done for twenty years!

The solution? Involve people in the change as early as possible. And find lots of ways to demonstrate why the change is necessary.

Exhaustion/Saturation: Don't mistake compliance for acceptance. People who are overwhelmed by continuous change resign themselves to it and go along with the flow. You have them in body, but you do not have their hearts. Motivation is low.

The solution? Answer the all important 'What's In It For Me?' question. Show them how they can benefit from the change - and maybe provide some incentives along the way.

resistance to change demotivated guy

Change in the status quo: Resistance can also stem from perceptions of the change that people hold. For example, people who feel they'll be worse off at the end of the change are unlikely to give it their full support.

Similarly, if people believe the change favours another group, department or person there may be (unspoken) anger and resentment.

The solution? Lots of focus groups. Listen carefully for emotions and provide support. This may be in the form of counselling or coaching.

Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better.
- King Whitney Jr.

Read more change quotes to inspire and motivate.

It's not possible to be aware of all sources of resistance you might face. Expecting that there will be resistance to change and being prepared to manage it is a proactive step.

Recognising behaviours that indicate possible resistance will raise awareness of the need to address the concerns.

At the end of the day all sources of resistance to change need to be acknowledged and people's emotions validated.

It's far better to anticipate objections than to spend your time putting out fires.

Knowing how to overcome resistance to change is a vital part of any change management plan.

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Find out more about resistance to change

Anticipate resistance with the help of the Force Field Analysis.

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