"Most suffering comes from the failure to adapt and a resistance to change" says Dr. Debasish Mridha, physician and author. His insight applies to organizations of all types, as resistance can be found among all levels of stakeholders, and suffering can be experienced from human, project, and business sustainability perspectives.
Whether you're introducing new product or service offerings, upgrading technology and systems, orienting team members from a merger or acquisition, or beginning any other type of organizational change management project, you're bound to encounter resistance.
The types of resistance, and where it's coming from, can look different from one organization to the next. This can be true even of companies of similar industry, size, hierarchy, and success.
Despite unique variables, there are some commonalities in the resistance to change that's most often experienced. With this in mind, we'll explore 3 types of organizational change resistance and how to deal with them so that you can increase employee buy-in and support and move closer to successful change project implementation.
In this form of resistance to change, whether your communication is good or bad, your employees just don't get it. The "it" that they're not getting is the reason for change.
They may not feel the urgency, understand the consequences of failure to change, or the benefits that exist for them in successful change. Often, they'll say to themselves, "Things seem fine as they are. Why change?"
I experienced this form of resistance to change as a manager in a company where a new compensation structure was being introduced for members of the sales team.
Their structure of hourly pay, commission percentages, and bonuses had existed in the same form for more than 5 years. Here's why they held onto it so tightly:
The new compensation plan would result in better pay, more consistently, and with a formula that was much more easily understood. Yet, it was resisted for several reasons with fear of earning less being the most significant.
The pathway to improved understanding of the reasons for change exists in improved communication. Here are 3 things you can do to address this type of change resistance:
Bareil (2013) as cited in Schweiger et al. (2018) suggests open communication, active listening, significant involvement of those who will experience the impacts of change as being the most common strategies in the face of resistance. This parallels the 2nd step of Kotter's change management model, where a diverse guiding coalition is formed to develop vision and strategy for change projects.
When you have a question, you're more apt to ask the person sitting next to you for an answer than you are to knock on the door of the CEO, right? That type of behavior drives this recommendation in utilizing those employees, not only executives and managers, who were part of the strategic development to be available in a sort of boots-on-the-ground approach.
Rushing to your go-live date is a bit like fast-forwarding to the starting line of a marathon without having done the training to prepare. Just launching doesn't mean that your company will see the benefits or reap the rewards. A disciplined approach that includes clear and consistent communication, appropriate training, and refined feedback systems will have you and your team members feeling prepared for long haul.
Each of these three actions can help your team, through direct involvement, proximity to representative communication, or in time to digest the information in better understanding organizational change projects.
The second area in our forms of resistance to change is lack of embrace. This means that your team understands the reasons or urgency for change, yet they just don't want it. It's as though your employees are putting up a "do not disturb" sign.
They may see inconvenience in the process of change. They'll have to learn a new system or software. It'll disrupt their comfortable routine. In some cases, they may see it as a type of progress that means their role is one step closer to becoming obsolete, overtaken by technology. Fear exists in this type of resistance to change, as well.
I experienced this type of resistance to change when I'd been part of a sales team in a educational technology SaaS company. A new software had been introduced that was intended to make the process of reviewing and signing client contracts more efficient.
The existing process and software weren't necessarily broken. And, the new software did eliminate several steps in the sending and attaching of documents.
Sales representatives understood the vision for the use of the new software. However, embrace of the change was nearly non-existent because:
Adding to the issue was the fact that the original software and process continued to be available for use, making adoption of the new process that much more difficult.
Communication, training, and career development opportunities are among the routes to overcoming a lack of embrace by employees as resistance to change project adoption and implementation.
In instances where the introduction of change might create fear in employees that their roles are gradually being replaced by automation, you have to stop that sort of rumor mill in its tracks before it starts. Develop a communication plan that anticipates the questions that employees will have, reaches the workforce across multiple channels, and provides clear paths to providing feedback or getting clarification. The sooner employees' concerns are addressed with facts, the sooner you'll have a majority of employees championing your change effort.
Years ago as a General Manager of a fitness facility, one of our Personal Trainers hosted an introduction to kettlebells class. His workshop was well-attended and received excellent reviews from happy attendees. Within a week we realized two things:
We offered both options, and the Personal Trainer and both groups of clients benefited.
If your company intends to introduce new software, as in our earlier example, you can execute this strategy. Here's how:
One of the exciting opportunities in organizational change is that its impact is often felt across departments. For those organizations seeking to improve employee retention, you can use organizational transformation to highlight career advancement opportunities. Encouraging existing supervisors and future leaders to attend cross-functional trainings can enhance organizational knowledge, improve internal communication and collaboration, and set the foundation for increased innovation.
Each of these 3 areas can help your team or organization navigate the challenges present when employees understand the need for change, yet their resistance stems from not liking it or from fearing the impact it could have on their roles.
The third area in forms of resistance to change is the lack of trust that can exist within an organization. In this type of change resistance, employees may or may not understand the change, and they may or may not like the change. What's more significant is that a lack of trust has developed that is shaping their perceptions of the change effort and its value.
Who, or what, isn't trusted could include fellow employees, managers, leadership, or the systems and technology that are supposed to support change. A history of broken promises or failed change efforts can lead to this mistrust and the feeling that successful change isn't possible.
I'd witnessed this type of resistance to change in a fitness organization. New for-fee, group fitness services were being introduced, and these required in-club management to reserve sections of the health club for use by instructors and paying clients only.
The sales team members and the Personal Trainers were excited about the program's potential. But, they were hesitant to invest energy in supporting it, as they believed that club management would not enforce the section reservations, creating uncomfortable client, member, and trainer conversations.
Rather than risk confrontations and damage to customer experience, the training staff made the conscious decision to avoid enrolling clients in the new programming. The lack of trust in management, developed through a history of interactions and undesirable behaviors, became the obstacle preventing successful change.
Of the types of resistance, lack of trust is the most challenging. It is the bond most easily lost, and the one that takes the longest to repair. But, when fostered, it can become a foundation for a culture of change.
Research by Maurer (2014) suggests that change initiative effectiveness is influenced by the presence and participation of senior leaders. It's not enough to voice support, then disappear only to be heard from now and again in email. The presence of the leader enhances the confidence of the followers.
In American football, teammates clear the way for the ball carrier by blocking the opposing team's players. In change management, leaders can act in kind by clearing obstacles from the path of those team members acting in support of the change effort. Clear obstacles, enable action, and see progress continue.
Kouzes & Posner (2011) as cited in Jumoke Ajanaku & Lubbe (2021) reflect on the 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership framework where the achievement of organizational objectives is supported by the qualities of credibility, trust, and freedom of expression that are found when leaders model the behaviors they expect.
In other words, followers observe whether the words and actions of leadership are aligned, and decide their commitment to change based on the quality of this alignment.
Doing each of these things once won't eliminate lack of trust as a form of resistance to change. The efforts of leadership must be maintained to yield similar commitment from your employees.
This section of the site is an excellent primer for insight on methodologies, tools, and resources that can support successful change efforts.
To continue your learning:
David Bohmiller, MBA, MS (he/him/his)
Founder, CEO and Consulting Executive
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Jumoke Ajanaku, O., & Lubbe, W. (2021). Applying Transformational Leadership in Nursing through the Lens of Kouzes and Posner Leadership Practices. Gender & Behaviour, 19(2), 17788-17794.
Maurer, R. (2014, July 1). The Influence of Senior Leaders in Successful Change. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 37(2).
Schweiger, S., Stouten, H., & Bleijenbergh, I. L. (2018). A System Dynamics Model of Resistance to Organizational Change: The Role of Participatory Strategies. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 35(6), 658-674. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1002/sres.2509