If you’ve ever tried to restructure your teams, introduce new workflows, or otherwise shaken up longstanding procedures at your company, you know how difficult change can be. At least a few employees will grumble – some may even speak up. But at worst, they may actively try to resist, or even thwart, your efforts at change. It’s a psychological phenomenon common across industries.
But why is resistance to change so persistent? The simple answer may just be that people want stability. They want to be able to predict what will happen to them instead of being confronted with the unknown. While there is truth to this, it also underestimates people’s capacity for change. Instead, the real culprit may not be change at all, but the poor management and implementation of it.
In this article, we’re going to examine the components that fuel resistance to change, then take a closer look at some ways you can prevent it from happening.
How do we define resistance to change?
Resistance to change is any reluctance to adopt or accept new processes, circumstances, structures, or anything that deviates from established norms. It can be something that happens on an individual basis or across an entire organization.
Although there can be many causes, it typically has roots in a fear of uncertainty and a loss of control. Because people tend to crave constancy and predictability, they may become anxious or withdrawn if faced with the prospect of change. Left unchecked, these feelings can have negative long-term consequences for an organization, including low morale, higher turnover, and a loss in productivity.
Identifying signs of resistance
Resistance to change can take many forms. Sometimes it is obvious, even blatant, deliberately designed to draw attention to a vocal faction that opposes the proposed change. But it can also take more subtle forms that can easily be missed. Here are a few signs you may want to look out for:
- Missing employees: Whether more employees are calling in sick or simply handing in their resignations, more empty chairs is definitely an indication of employee discomfort. Whatever change has been introduced is making people feel uncomfortable, which means they won’t want to show up.
- Open disagreements: Some disagreement can be constructive. But when a chorus of employees start to voice their concerns, doubts, or objections to proposed changes all at once, passionately and frequently, then you may have reached a critical mass of resistance.
- Decreased productivity: Employees who disagree with organizational change proposals will likely be more stressed, which will make it difficult for them to be engaged and enthusiastic about their work. Inevitably, this will lead to lower productivity.
- Rumors and gossip: Misinformation and speculation can often flourish in an atmosphere of uncertainty. When this happens, it’s common for people to start spreading rumors and gossip among each other, especially when it comes to the motives behind the change.
- Coalitions: If enough employees view potential changes as a threat, they may start forming groups and factions in order to collectively resist it. You may notice them meeting during or after work, or approaching management with shared concerns and strategies for standing against the change.
- Sabotage: In extreme cases, resistance can escalate to acts of sabotage or subversion. When this happens, employees may intentionally undermine the change process through actions such as spreading false information or intentionally slowing down work.
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Typical causes of resistance to change
Resistance to change can rarely be attributed to just the change itself. Instead, it can arise from a variety of factors. Understanding what these causes of resistance are is the first step to knowing how to address them.
Fear of the unknown
Probably the most common reason there may be resistance to change is due to a generalized anxiety about what’s coming. Especially if there is little plan in place or if communication has not been robust, employees may feel uncertain and nervous about what will happen to them. For instance, they may be apprehensive about adapting to new technologies or afraid that the new changes may affect their personal lives. There may be some who are afraid they could lose their jobs. Change can represent a big unknown for many people, which they’ll quickly fill with their own fears.
Loss of control
When change is introduced from above, employees may feel like they’ve lost an important sense of stability and control. What they once knew well was suddenly taken from them from out-of-touch managers or absent execs. This may even serve to confirm even larger fears of bureaucratic malfeasance and help encourage them to assert their employee autonomy. The result? A heightened resistance that impedes any efforts at change.
Concerns about job security
The potential loss of their job is a potent reason for resistance to change. It’s also a natural one. After all, organizational change has historically been associated with layoffs and job rollbacks, especially when it is couched in the language of increasing productivity and efficiency. Even when change is relatively small and incremental, this legacy may lead employees to assume the worst.
Change can be complicated, involving many moving parts and people. That makes it easy for there to be plenty of misunderstandings along the way. This, in turn, can lead to rumors, misinformation, and, ultimately, to a lack of trust. If this is left unchecked and allowed to establish itself, then employees will be less likely to go along or otherwise accept your efforts at making change.
Previous negative experiences
The sad fact is that organizational change is often poorly managed, which means that many employees may have poor or even traumatic prior experiences with it. These bad memories can foster a deep resistance to all kinds of change initiatives, even those that are well thought out or structured. Even worse, because these employees have had personal experiences with organizational change, they may play a large part in spurring on others to resist change as well.
Best practices to overcome resistance to change
It can be frustrating when employees resist your efforts at organizational change – but it can also be an opportunity. While the change itself is probably a source of anxiety for them, the real root cause is likely something more manageable to address. The following best practices will give you proactive and tangible strategies for doing this, while ensuring you pave the way for a seamless shift.
Communication is first on the list for a reason: nearly every explanation for why workers may resist change can be traced back to some kind of breakdown in messaging. Perhaps you failed to adequately justify the reasons behind the change. Or maybe you didn’t do a good job of detailing the individual steps. Whatever it is, communication that falls short will inevitably lead to ambiguity, confusion, and mistrust.
You can avoid this by pairing any efforts at change with frequent and fully transparent communications. Call an all hands meeting to thoroughly explain what is happening, then offer to answer questions for as long as it takes. Hold one-on-one meetings with managers and other leaders to make sure they understand the need for change and how it will occur. Then encourage them to communicate these details to their teams. Making efforts like these can go a long way to reducing employee resistance and even turning them into advocates.
When change feels like it’s happening to someone, it can feel scary and overwhelming. But when you get to be involved in this change, helping to map out its details and dictate how it is implemented, it will feel like it is happening alongside you. This will create a feeling of control that will help diminish any potential resistance.
What does this look like on the ground? Ideally, you will identify your stakeholders and start involving them in the change process before anything even happens. Detail the reasons why you think change is necessary, then get their reactions. Make any necessary adjustments to your strategy, then work closely with them to come up with how it will all occur. Check back in with them frequently – daily even – in order to keep them involved and up to date. The effect of all this will be a workforce that’s more engaged and accepting of the change.
Empathy and support
Even with transparent communication prioritized and workers included in each decision along the way, change can still brew resistance. Employees may be anxious for many reasons. They may not be comfortable with long-established norms going out the window, for instance, or they could be apprehensive about new technologies. This is why, throughout the change process, you’ll need to practice empathy.
First and foremost, this should involve listening to employee concerns. Set aside some time each week for people to come forward and voice their worries. If they’re not comfortable doing this in person, let them send in notes digitally or anonymously. Then, after you’ve heard them out, offer them support. Assuage their fears whenever possible, but also ask them how you can help them out. If you prefer to be even more proactive, consider creating a dedicated group that can offer workers extra resources and coach them through the change period. Knowing that their company is concerned about them, as well as seeing them do something about it, should set their mind at ease.
Training and education
A big reason why employees may be resisting change is that they don’t feel prepared for it. Even the most seasoned or experienced workers may seem uncertain about their skills in the face of new processes and protocols. But you can keep this anxiety from turning into outright revolt by offering to help them address any of their shortcomings, whether perceived or actual, and prepare them for the change.
Typically, this is easiest to do when you can gradually introduce new changes and ease employees into their new work. Work with them to come up with a schedule that incorporates incremental transitions and training alongside each other. Empower managers to help educate their own teams and address any skills gaps their individual members may have. Go even further and provide plenty of reference materials and in-app guidance to help employees self educate and adapt to their new circumstances. And throughout this, make sure to communicate clearly and effectively that your employees’ long-term value is worth this investment.
Part of building out an effective communication plan that reduces resistance is making sure that you are sending out clear and consistent messages. This is especially important when it comes to leadership. Your employees are looking to you and your managers to understand what is happening. If all of you aren’t aligned, then they’ll be much more likely to lose confidence.
The best way to ensure consistent leadership alignment during change is to put someone in charge of messaging. Although you should make the details of the change process itself as inclusive as possible, having a single person or team own how these details get disseminated will help simplify the communication process for everyone. Everyone will have a single source of information when they need to answer a question or want to explain how the next step of the change process works. More importantly, this will reduce the chance of conflicting messages that could spur resistance.
Finally, don’t neglect the persuasive power of swiftly implementing positive and impactful change. While change can often be complicated, there will undoubtedly be aspects of your larger plan that you can introduce earlier in order to showcase its potential. Do this early and as often as you can so that you can get employee buy-in fast.
But don’t necessarily rely on your own judgment to determine what these wins should be. Instead, this is a good opportunity to practice inclusivity. Work with your employees to identify what they’re most excited about seeing, then separate out the items that will take the most work to accomplish and those that can be implemented much faster. This way, you can get your wins while also showing that you care about delivering what is most important to your teams.
In conclusion: overcoming resistance to change
No organization interested in lasting very long can avoid change. Whether spurred by industry developments or environmental shifts, or spurred on by the rise of new competition, organizational change is a natural and inevitable aspect of business. But so is the inclination of individuals to resist this change. For many, change represents uncertainty and a lack of control, which will make the hesitant or even resentful if it’s forced upon them. Organizations need to understand that, while change can come with anxiety, the real problem is often how this change is managed. Instead, by proactively addressing the most common concerns that surround change, you can not only allay these fears but turn employees into active advocates for change. In other words, resistance to change isn’t something that should necessarily be discouraged. Rather, consider a chance to look at how you can more closely involve your workers in the change process.