Overcoming Resistance to Change in the Workplace
In the modern world of business, change attacks our operations every day. It tears at the very fabric of our processes and the emotions of our people. Change activity in business results from external impacts and influences that create a shift in the boundaries of the organisational systems we work within. It could be a change in government regulation, the appointment of a new CEO, new competition entering or old competition leaving the market, a single supplier increasing their rates to a prohibitive cost, or a significant shift in the economy- positive or negative. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher is quoted “The only thing that is constant is Change”. It seems that in today’s world of interconnected business, change is not only constant, but it is increasing in pace, and seems to be the new normal.
Whatever the change that is required within your organisation, it will be met with resistance from your workforce. If left to its own devices, the size and shape of the resistance will almost directly correlate to the scale of change imposed on your organisation.
Any manager who has undergone a change in their business will acknowledge that implementing new ‘things’ into your organisation is the easier action of the program. However, workplace resistance is a human minefield of complex emotions and is often cited as the primary reason for the change to have failed. Many managers, when faced with workplace opposition yearn for a Borg consultant to descend from the stars and deliver their “Resistance is Futile” speech. Unfortunately, Star Trek is fictional and there are no Borg workshops on Overcoming Workplace Resistance. Not this year anyway.
Whilst you cannot remove resistance altogether from your change program, you can prepare for it, know what to look for, and take steps to assist your staff through, what can be, a very trying activity for all involved parties. For as Billy Joel wrote, and it's the reason for this paper, "You can't go the distance with too much Resistance".
So, what is resistance?
At it’s very basic level it is an emotional response triggered by an event(s) that counters an individual’s thought paradigm. It will manifest in many forms and can be both quick and/or slow burning in its evolution. However, the most difficult aspect of resistance for managers is that it is deeply personal. What energises one person will paralyse another. It cannot be pigeon holed nor will one solution suffice for the many.
Importantly, people do not resist organisational change, they resist the impacts, real or imagined, that may affect their personal lives resulting from the change. As Peter M. Senge has said “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed”
What are the Drivers? Graetz etal in their book ‘Managing Organisational Change’ inform us there are six drivers that will create resistance to a change program:
A quick review of these indicators and you’ll be nodding your head in agreement. We all know somebody who has felt these drivers. Who hasn’t listened to at least one office rumour concerning an impending change? Who hasn’t felt the sense of inconvenience at having your office space moved, or the deep sense of loss as your favourite boss has been given their marching orders?
What to Look for? So, if these are the drivers to create resistance, then how will it manifest in the workplace as a behavioural reaction? What can you look for in your people that will help you understand their resistance? There are six generalised dispositions that are recognised by psychologists (of which I am not, and nor do I profess to be a behavioural expert), that can be applied to workplace resistance:
If every individual has their own reality then, as Ford & Ford state, each person has their own meaning and construct of resistance. An individual will then assume the form and shape of one or more of the above dispositions. The depth of the resistant state will also be an individual narrative. If you, as a manager, have your own reality of resistance, then it will undoubtedly differ to that reality of your staff.
Therefore, rather than state “why is that person resisting?” it may help you to understand your staff better if you were to ask, “why do I call that resistance?”.
What part of the change is causing resistance amongst your workforce, and why do you believe it to be resistance? It’s an important question to ask, as this will help you formulate strategies to defuse the resistance.
Cook’s study describes the six reasons why employees will resist your change:
Employees know something that you do not know, which may, in fact, make their resistance not only understandable, but even correct.
People who are happy with the status quo will fight to protect it.
If they can see no clear path between the current state and the new position then they cannot begin to move forward.
If they do not believe they have the necessary skills to be successful in the new order, or are heavily invested in the current order then again they will resist
They need to have clear and credible role models of the new behaviours
They need to understand why the change is in their interests. Too many people make the mistake of saying why the company needs this, that and the other, but fail to make the link as to how these things benefit the individuals.
It is vital for the success of your change program that you unearth the resistance among your staff. Sometimes, the old cleaner who has worked for the business for five decades will not only know where the organisational skeletons are buried, but how to unearth them without causing harm. As an example, I was involved with a rescue operation from an offshore LNG processing plant some years back. The plant had been built in the late 1960’s, and needed to undergo a very large upgrade and modernisation program. The only people on site who knew the location of the gas pipeline emergency stop valves, and how to apply them, were two old cleaners- who were completely disregarded as having anything meaningful to contribute to the planned organisational changes. They’d been working in the plant since construction, and in those days were boilermakers and welders. Because they’d been sidelined, they were resisting the change and were considered as interfering old miseries by the management who was driving the program forward.
The planned change looked at the whole plant and pipe work, technology, and heavy machinery were to be replaced, renewed or upgraded. As part of the change, a team was conducting hot work, cut open a live gas pipe, and the plant exploded into a fireball. As the workforce ran from the explosion, the two old cleaners ran into the plant and under the flames. Once inside, they applied the manual stop valves for the pipes that were used to bring the gas into the plant from the gas-fields. This cut off the feed for the massive firestorm and significantly reduced the size and impact of the explosion. If those men had not applied the stop valve, more than 90 cubic km of gas would’ve flowed into the facility and fuelled the explosion. As it was, not one life was lost. As the plant had never exploded in 50 years, knowing the location of the emergency stop valves was not considered for the change program.
If management had taken the time to understand why the cleaners were resisting the changes, they would have learnt about the emergency valves, as well as the construction of the old pipework in the facility. The explosion would not have occurred.
I use this example to illustrate the importance of understanding why your employees will resist your program. Sometimes, the frontline worker will understand more about the impacts your changes will bring to the organisation than you do. It could even save lives. If you can change your thinking from ‘why are those people resisting?’ to ‘why do I call that resistance?’, and take the time to understand the source of the resistance, it may lead to unearthing hidden organisational skeletons, which might otherwise cause damage to the business operation.
As a leader, there are two signals of resistance to watch for in the general workplace. Both are debilitating and can result in not only your change coming unstuck, but it may also destabilise your entire business.
Silence. During the preparation phase, at some point you will be met with silence. It will seem there are no obstacles or barriers to your change strategy, and the entire team is ‘on board’. This can be a trap for the unwary leader. Check, check and check again. What may appear as tacit agreement is in fact a sullen passive aggressive silence. Individuals or workteams who feel sidelined simply zip their lips. They will deliberately not offer advice or information, which limits the communication flow. As in the example of the cleaners above, this can lead to decisions being made in the change process without key pieces of information. Organisational silence is difficult to hear amongst the white noise of a major program of change. Look for the indicators of latecomers to meetings, non-participation, general disinterest, or a certain slowness in information provision.
Organisational silence can be incredibly destabilising and will only be realised when the change program runs aground. Bringing individuals back to the conversation can be very difficult and time consuming, however it is necessary for a successful change to occur.
Paralysis. All people can accept change if given the time and resources to work through the activity needed for a successful program. However, individuals can only accept change at a certain pace and scale suitable to their own emotional and mental capabilities. This applies equally as a collective. Your workforce will find a natural pace that allows them to accept, cope, and move with the change program.
If change is delivered into a workplace too quickly, or the scale of change is too large, then, as Falkenburg states, cynicism and paralysis occurs. The worst of these is paralysis, as this can directly impact the business operations. Where this is felt hardest is at the middle manager level, who will undoubtedly receive an increased workload through the change process. Even the most positive individual will begin to resist the change program if it becomes too excessive.
Your middle managers are the organisational canaries in the coalmine during a change program. If they appear overloaded, or begin to demonstrate inaction or indecision, it may be they are paralysed due to the pace and/or scale of the change activity. Monitor your middle management regularly as a temperature check on your organisational resistance levels.
With a large change agenda, leaders should ask themselves three simple questions:
Time? Is this particular piece of change appropriate to implement now? Is it timely?
Need? Do we have to implement this piece of change now, or can it wait?
Speed? Is the pace of change already at its peak?
When change is implemented ensure it is done so at a pace and scale your workforce can accommodate. Many leaders overestimate the ability of their staff’s ability to cope with the extra workload. It’s an oft used line, but so often ignored, “make sure you take your people with you on this journey. Don’t leave them behind at the station”, the mantra of “get on the train or get under it” will only carry you so far with your changes. Keep the scale and pace of change to a slow boil. It’s infuriatingly slow for you, as a leader, however it’ll prove a sound process at the end of the change program.
As a former CEO of Boeing has been quoted “Change in an organisation occurs one meeting at a time, and one office at a time”. Probably the single best skill you can apply to your change program is patience. This is an incredibly slow process, and will take much longer than you believe. Your staff will respect that you are prepared to take the time to understand and acknowledged their resistance. You do not have to agree with their opinions, however it is important to acknowledge them.
Offer a compelling ‘why’ the organisation must undergo this change program. Without a clear vision and understanding of the change program, staff will resist it. If they cannot grasp what the organisation should transform into, they will remain with the status quo, until given good reason to change. Ensure your vision is clear and compelling, when articulating your changes.
Often the reason for resistance is a lack of understanding and skills in those whom change has been imposed upon. A Change program implies that certain new skills or competencies will be required by the workforce, and it is through the acquisition of these skills that employees may embrace rather than resist the change.
Through the engagement of a comprehensive training program to complement the change program, resistance can be broken down in a systemic fashion. By allowing your workforce to learn the new skills, it will remove fears, often imagined, of what the change will bring to the workplace.
Ensure your training program not only covers the ‘what’ of the change program, as well as the ‘how’ to use the new tools, but also the ‘why’ it is important to them as individuals to complete the training and embrace the change.
Empathy and Support
Understanding that the change program you are about to implement into your business is going to create an emotional response in people is important. Taking the time to listen to your staff is critical to the change program. Suspend judgement and adopt their perspective. When people feel they are being genuinely listened to, they will be more likely to be less defensive, and more willing to embrace the changes.
A common criticism of the workplace is the lack of communication. I have often heard people complain about not knowing of a particular action, a meeting, or a document not completed. We have all been in that situation of “…if only I’d been informed in time, none of this would have occurred….”. So, if that is what it’s felt like in normal operations, imagine if there is a major change strategy occurring at the same time. People will feel unbalanced, uninformed or even ignored.
Establishing change communication is a difficult action, as it needs to be conducted in tandem with normal operational communications. It is important that staff are informed of the change activity in a timely fashion, but also in a manner that does not overwhelm them.
Critically, if effective change communication is not completed, and staff either do not receive information, or are not aware of where/how to find that information, this creates a vacuum.
Unfortunately, without correct information to counter it, this vacuum is generally backfilled by staff members who may not have the complete picture of the change program, or its interests at heart. This leads to office gossip and rumour, which can be catastrophic to a successful change program.
Ensure you communicate your change plans often, on different media, and you stay on message. Sending out an office email once is simply not enough. How often have we all been caught out with ‘didn’t you read the email?’. Meetings, newsletters, offsite activities, amongst other actions all provide the reinforcing messages that are required for a successful change. The communications strategy needs to be comprehensive so that no vacuum is created for staff rumours to populate.
Participation and Involvement
Probably the oldest and most effective channel to reduce resistance is to involve those who are loudest against the program, and bring them into the change team. Through converting key dissenters, your organisation will not only gain insights that may not have been considered (remember the cleaners), but it will also influence the wider workplace. Recognising the unofficial organisational structure, where some individuals will hold a wider sphere of influence on their workplace, it’s critical to the success to the change program that these individuals are converted early. An example to illustrate my point is a shop floor union delegate. They may hold a lesser position in the organisation, however as the union representative, their influence can be wide, and their opinions can be sought by many members. By bringing them into the change team, these individuals will be committed to implementing the changes as it is in their best interests to do so.
Reinforce New Behaviours
Celebrate the wins as the change program is implemented. Seek out those who have embraced the change and are displaying the new behaviours that you are wanting from the organisation. Make an example of these people. Reinforce and reward them for demonstrating these behaviours. This can be done both formally, through reward schemes, or through more frequent informal recognition, through simply encouraging and praising your team members.
Some organisations are now rewarding mistakes; where team members have attempted to take on the new behaviours or skills and their efforts have fallen short. Celebrate the attempt and reward the behaviour not the result.
Stay the Course
Probably the most difficult action for a leader is to hold their chosen course of change. There will be a level of unrest in the organisation, the leader will be bombarded with many reasons to not change or that it’s not working. If you believe the change is for the best, then stay the course.
Recognise that your organisation is going to decline in performance, productivity and satisfaction levels while the change is implemented. Your team needs time to learn, practice and develop the new processes, relationships and skills that your change has imposed on them. This takes time, and it’s going to be slow.
Costs will increase during the change process. The little costs that drive managers crazy, such as meal expenses, accommodation, taxis and air travel will all increase. Your people must go to training activities, they will need to get to meetings, and you will probably have engaged consultants (like me) to complete these actions. Recognise this is a cost of change, and it’s a cost of business.
Perfectly good change programs are often abandoned when questions are raised about either short term productivity decline, or a spike in costs occurs. Have patience and trust in your program.
Secondly, don’t fall into the trap of following the next big idea. There is nothing worse to a workforce morale if a change is implemented, and before it’s completed- management introduce another action. This leads to a ‘flavour of the month’ cynicism from your staff. This will result in your workforce putting token support into the change, as they will be of the understanding that the current change will not last. Every new change that is implemented without closing out the last action will only increase resistance from your workforce for all subsequent change activities. Resist the temptation to introduce a new change until the current activity has been completed.
As Heraclitus is quoted “The only thing that is Constant is Change”, and in business this continues to ring true today. As Humans, we strive for both change to improve our position, and yet at the same time we seek routine and habit. Organisational Resistance is formed when change clashes with routine business operations. People do not resist the change per se, they resist what the changes may bring to their personal lives. Therefore, resistance is an incredibly personal experience, which includes an individual’s ability to cope and accept with the scale and pace of change. Resistance is anything- sadly for the Borgs- but futile.
Resistance to change is to be normally expected in business. However, it can be overcome through the delivery of a clear vision, effective communications, inclusion of the workforce in the change program, rewarding positive behaviours, and a comprehensive training program.
Lastly, if you as a leader have implemented a change program for the right reasons, have the strength of character to stay the course. Resistance will diminish eventually if you are prepared to accept that it will take time, and that it is overcome one meeting at a time, one office at a time.
To misquote Billy Joel, if you are at the end of your change program, and you can say to yourself that you've gone the distance, then you've overcome the resistance.
About the author: Cameron Simpkins is the Operations Director for The Storey Group, an experienced and qualified Organisational Change business based in Dubai, UAE. Cameron has more than two decades of work experience in change management. He has project managed large organisational transformational changes through both government and private enterprises, including IT, transport, manufacturing and the Health Industries.
He has international experience, having worked in the USA, UAE, Poland, Saudi Arabia, PNG and his native Australia.