We have always done it like this!
"There's no abracadabra..."
Numerous managers perceive one of the most confusing and persistent challenges in their work to be the employees’ resistance to change. As such, a nuanced attitude towards change is a characteristic of people, as we almost always find the new and unknown scary or at least suspicious. That’s why we are trying to maintain the status quo for as long as possible. However, static does not take us forward. In the worst-case scenario, the status quo makes both the individual and the organization decline.
But is it all resistance to change or maybe a healthy criticality? From an early age, we are taught the skills of critical thinking, for they are the foundation of all constructive thinking. Questioning things is an important part of the change process. It can be used to look at how the vision works from several different directions and to ensure that we are on the right track and that the proposed changes are necessary.
"Static does not take us forward."
But what should a leader do when she or he faces ubiquitous resistance? Resistance to change manifests itself in many ways, from dragging your feet to indifference, to little sabotage, and outright rebellion. Even the justified healthy criticality of an individual employee is easy to brand as resistance to change, an unnecessary hassle. In doing so, however, the opportunity for both change and learning is lost. Resistance to change does not have to be an enemy to be defeated, but also a great ally and partner. But for practical help, the best tool for leaders is to understand the predictable, universal sources of resistance in each situation and then make strategies around them. Here’s the top ten.
Overkilling uncertainty. If a change feels like walking off a cliff with your eyes blindfolded, people will reject it. Fear of the unknown has been a fairly dominant model of thought for humans throughout history. People often want to stay in the status quo rather than run into the unknown. As the saying goes ‘’Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know’’. Overcoming resistance to change requires a sense of security as well as an inspiring vision and solid transparent communication. Solutions? Sharp leaders create reassurance and certainty about the process with clear, simple steps and schedules.
Surprise, surprise! Sudden decisions directed at people who don’t have time to get used to the idea or prepare for the consequences are usually opposed. It’s always easier to say no rather than yes. Leaders should avoid the temptation to make decisions and changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It’s better to sow the seeds – in other words, sprinkle clues about what’s coming and seek feedback. It has been studied that up to 70% of all organizational changes fail due to deficiencies in internal communication. The flow of information and communication is not only an important part of the change but the most important tool for the change. In addition to the flow of information, the flow of emotions is also a critical element in change. Often far too little attention has been paid to individual workers, whose daily work is greatly affected by the change. How do they experience the change? What do they think would help them?
Everything seems so different. Change is destined to bring something different, but how different? We love routines and our own ways and methods of doing things. Routines become automatic, but the change shocks us into consciousness, sometimes in an unpleasant way, since it’s really hard to leave our comfort areas. And that’s why we’re often prisoners of our routines and are appalled by everything that suggests something new. Too many differences can be confusing or even scary. Solutions? Sharp leaders try to minimize the number of unrelated differences caused by change. Whenever possible, keep things familiar. Safe. Stay focused on the important things and avoid change only due to the change itself.
Shame on me. By definition, change is a deviation from the past. Those people who were part of the latest version – the one that didn’t work out so well or will be replaced – are likely to be defensive against it. When a change involves a major change in strategic direction, the people responsible for the previous direction fear that they must have been wrong. Leaders can help people maintain their dignity by celebrating elements of the past that are worth honoring and making it clear that the world has changed. This will make it easier to let go and move on.
Anxiety about competence. Am I able to do that? Lack of skills and competence are things that people rarely dare to say out loud. Changes in the organization often require the learning of new skills. This makes many of us fear that we will not cope with this change or learn new things well enough. Change is often opposed when it makes us feel stupid and inadequate. This fear can appear as resistance and criticism. Solution? Resourceful leaders invest therefore almost too much in structural insurance by providing information, training, education, mentors, and support systems. Also, an overlap period that uses two systems simultaneously facilitates transitions.
More work. Here’s a universal challenge. Let’s be real, change indeed often means more work. Those closest to change in terms of testing and implementing are often overburdened, partly due to inevitable unexpected disruptions during change. That’s why leaders should recognize the hard work of change by remembering to thank their employees, allowing some people to focus exclusively on the change project, or adding some extra benefits to participants like meals or some other nice surprises. If staff feel that the benefits and rewards of change are insufficient related to the investment, possible sacrifices, and resources they will put into, fierce resistance can be expected. People can also think, why make changes and reforms if they lead to a worse situation than before?
Ripple effects. Like throwing a rock into a pond, change creates a ripple effect that reaches distant points in ever-wider circles. The ripple is bothering other departments as well, important customers, and people far outside the company, and they are starting to retreat and rebel against the changes they had nothing to do with. Therefore a good idea might be to expand the circle of stakeholders. Leaders must consider all parties involved, no matter how far away, and work with them to minimize disruption.
The ghosts of the past. The ghosts of the past always lurk to haunt us. As long as everything is in a stable state, they will remain out of sight. But as soon as you need to collaborate on something new or different, ghosts bolt into action. Old wounds reopen and historical resentments are remembered. That’s why crafty leaders consider gestures to heal the past before running into the future.
What if the threat is real? Now we get into real pain and politics. Change is opposed because it can hurt. When new technologies displace old ones, jobs can be lost; prices can be cut; investments can be wiped out. The best thing leaders can do when the change they seek poses a significant threat is, to be honest, transparent, fast, and fair.
While leaders may not always make people feel comfortable amid change, they can minimize discomfort. Traditionally, variability in emotional states, and especially emotions perceived as negative in tone, have been seen as problematic reactions that should be silenced. What if, instead of silencing emotions and eradicating resistance to change, these emotions of change were allowed and heard? What perspectives could be found in people labeled resistant to change? By allowing emotions and diagnosing the sources of resistance to change, we can get to some important themes that are critical to change and the first steps towards good solutions. At its best, emotions are a force for change that can be used to attract the development ideas and innovations through appropriate methods. And it’s good to remember that feedback from resistors can even help improve the process of gaining acceptance for change.
If you want us to help you with a possible change, we are more than happy to listen and help you out. No matter how big or small the change is, it is certain that the change will always be easier with a dedicated and external partner.
Business Developer / Strategist / Partner