You will all agree that change has become an everyday phenomenon in today’s ever-changing and dynamic business context, we keep on hearing from all types of organizations, operating locally or globally, terminologies like ‘Transformation, Reengineering, Re-organization, and Restructuring’ etc. I will not be wrong in saying that all of these terminologies are, to some extent, used interchangeably with an intention to denote one common phenomenon i.e. ‘organizational change’.
I see organizational change as an opportunity, which will ensure the headlong-term survival of companies, irrespective of their size and geographical location. As Peter F. Drucker mentioned:
“One cannot manage change. One can be ahead of it. In a period of upheavals, such as the one we are living in, change is a norm. To be sure, it is painful and risky, and above all, it requires a great deal of very hard work.
But unless it is seen as the task of the organization to lead change, the organization will not survive. In a period of rapid structural change, the only ones who survive are the change leaders, who see change as an opportunity, he looks for change, knows how to find the right change, and know how to make them effective both outside the organization and inside it”.(Drucker 2004).
All change initiatives encounter resistance irrespective of the nature of change e.g. Administrative Change, Technological Change or Structural Change. As a change agents, we must accept the fact that resistance to change is inevitable and it must NOT be avoided or ignored, resistance is part and parcel of change initiative (s), and in my view one of the most important determinants of success or failure of any change initiative.
Unfortunately, however, many times I have seen that we (as change agents) are neither fully prepared nor have a clear understanding of resistance. One of the obvious reason is that we are so convinced with the change idea and feel great about it, we end up assuming that everyone will accept this change initiative and our impacted colleagues will do exactly as we have imagined. As a result, when we face resistance, we are not fully prepared nor ready for it, and we usually end-up building failure for the change initiative unknowingly.
In addition to the above, we as change agents can also fall victim to something called ‘Planning Fallacy’ which is defined as:
“Planning Fallacy is a form of optimism in which benefits are overestimated, potential mistakes and miscalculations are overlooked, resources and capabilities are overestimated, and the time required for implementation is underestimated” (Buehler, Griffin and Ross 1994).
It is also seen in many change initiatives that people aspect of change programs are usually considered only as an ‘after-thought’ and rather ‘last minutes’. This is despite the fact that over the period of time countless change initiatives failed mainly because employees or recipients of change have chosen not to get behind them (Scarlett 2016).
To be better prepared and effectively tackle change resistance, let’s first understand change and subsequently look at resistance.
1. What Change and Resistance?
As per Oxford Dictionary Change means:
a) Make or become different
b) Exchange one thing for something else
c) Move from one system or situation to another
As a noun, change is defined as ‘An act, or progress through which something becomes different’.
On the contrary, Oxford dictionary defines Resistance as:
b) Use force to prevent something from happening or being successful
c) Be undamaged or unaffected by
d) Prevent from penetrating
e) Refrain from accepting or yielding to
Both of these meanings show a clear inverse correlation between change and resistance where change is an effort of making or becoming different, on the other hand, behavior a reverse force is trying to prevent this from happening i.e. resistance. It is well documented from studies of individual and organizational behavior that organizations and their members resist change (Robbins 2001). However, ironically, resistance is an oft-misunderstood outcome of change and rather than suppress, negate or discourage, it should be managed and utilized as a resource (D. M. Waddell 2011).
Piderit uncovered three different emphases in conceptualizations of resistance (Falkenberg, et al. 2005); (1) a cognitive state, (2) an emotional state (3) behavioral or intentional state. These three dimensions encompass feeling, beliefs and plan or resolution to take some action, which means that change initiatives will surely follow resistance. As a change agent, we should be adequately equipped in identifying these dimensions and should be able to take necessary action to tackle them as well.
Pardo del Val and Martinez Fuentes define resistance to change as:
“Resistance is any conduct that tries to keep the status quo, that is to say, resistance is equivalent to inertia, as the persistence to avoid change. So, inertia and thus resistance is not negative concepts in general. Since change is not inherently beneficial for organizations. Even more, resistance could show change manager certain aspects that are not properly considered for the change process. (Val 2003)”
CEB defined resistance as:
“Employees are resistors when they refuse to change their behavior or adapt their work processes after a change has taken place (CEB 2016).”
In summary, on the basis of above definitions, Resistance to Change is inevitable and it is not necessarily a negative concept, it can be beneficial for the change initiative, subject to, if it is understood properly by change agents, it can increase the chances of successful implementation of change initiative(s).
Since resistance is inevitable and necessary for the success of change project, I have tried to understand the underlying reasons why people resist change as documented by researchers who studied change resistance.
3. Why People Resist Change?
Why people resist change and why it is so hard to implement any change initiative? The first and far most understandable reason is people are usually reluctant to change their habits unless there is a dire threat, employees usually prefer to continue doing what they’ve always done (Garvin and Reberto 2005).
However, the good news is, not everyone in the organization will resist change, but it is quite a challenge for the change agent to identify who will actually resist change and who will not. According to CEB, 72% employees do NOT resist change, it is only 28% resistors who really make the difference (CEB 2016).
Resistance can be Covert, Overt, Active or Passive. Covert resistance is not open or (in other words) it is ‘Silent resistance’ which is more dangerous than Overt or ‘Open resistance’. CEB did an analysis and reported that 83% of resisters identified by organizations are Vocal resistors whereas only 17% of resistors are Silent resistors (CEB 2016).
With an assumption in mind that relatively smaller number of colleagues (28%) are resistors and a large number of these resistors (83%) are Vocal resistors, it is time for us to ascertain the reasons behind their resistance in light of some research reports and views from different authors.
- The Fear of Unknown
Thomas R. Harvey mentioned in the preface of his book ‘Checklist for Change’:
A Chinese fable tells of the emperor who offered his condemned prisoners a choice, they could either be shot by a firing squad or go through a black door. As each prisoner came forward, he chose the firing squad and shunned the black door. At the end of the day, one of the emperor’s servants asked him, “Your greatness, may I inquire? What lies beyond the black door?” To which the emperor replied, “Freedom”. (Harvey 2001).
The prisoners were afraid of the ‘unknown or had a fear of the unknown’. This fear led them to accept certain death than attempting to go through the black door and claim freedom. One of the reasons for change resistance is our colleague’s fear of ‘Unknown’.
The fear of the unknown is a phobia which is also known as ‘Xenophobia’ and it is defined as;
‘Irrational sensation of fear experienced about a person or a group of persons as well as situation that are perceived as strange or foreign. It is the fear of anything that is beyond comfort zone (Olesen 2018).
Hilary Scarlett in her book ‘Neuroscience for Organizational Change’ mentioned that our brain’s main goal is to survive and to do so our brain does two key things:
(i) Avoid threats and
(ii) Seeks out rewards (Scarlett 2016).
According to her, our responses to both of these feelings have the impact on us physically as well as mentally, research suggested that our responses to a threat as compared to the reward are much faster, stronger, and longer and it increases stress. On the contrary, reward responses are slower, milder and shorter-lived (Scarlett 2016).
It is also suggested that our brains are prediction machines, constantly predicting and trying to make meanings to keep us out of harm. In case of significant organizational change, if our brain is not able to predict (Scarlett 2016), ambiguity and uncertainty will create uncomfortable feelings resulting in initiation of threat signals.
As these threat feelings and corresponding response continue to increase, it impacts our ability to collaborate, bring in new ideas and more importantly focus on the present. Our brain constantly compare our past experiences with the present, past experiences influence how we feel, past experience and expectations have a huge impact on how we experience the present (Scarlett 2016).
By engaging employees across the organization and using appropriate communication, the feeling of uncertainty can be reduced. With the availability of reasonable information employees will be able to predict in-line with the overall change initiative’s objectives, which will result in increased support by employees instead of opposing it.
- Cultural Change
In my view, the highest level of resistance is encountered when we (change agents) attempt to alter Organizational Culture. In theoretical context Organizational Culture is defined as; (D. M. Waddell 2011).
“Pattern of artifacts, norms, values and basic assumptions about how to solve problems that work well enough to be taught to others”. (Schein 1992).
Joanne Martin defined culture in her book ‘Culture in Organizations’ the Three Perspectives of organizational culture as:
“As individuals come into contact with organizations, they come into contract with dress norms, stories people tell about what goes on, the organization’s formal rules and procedures, its informal codes of behavior, rituals, tasks, pay systems, jargon jokes only understood by insiders, and so on.
These elements are some of the manifestations of organizational culture. When cultural members interpret the meanings of these manifestations, their perceptions, memories, beliefs, experiences, and values will vary, so interpretations will differ-even of the same phenomenon.
The patterns or configurations of these interpretations and the way they are enacted constitute culture” (Martin 1992).
She argued that culture must be drawn from a synthesis of following three perspectives (Stanford 2010):
(i) The integration perspective suggests that an organization has a single culture that is clearly identifiable and potentially measurable and that employees are committed to supporting it (or at least go along with it) (Martin 1992).
(ii) The differentiation perspective sees organizations as complex, many-faceted sets of subcultures, within one overarching culture, interacting to manage their diverse and often competing interests and objectives (Martin 1992).
(iii) The fragmentation perspective emphasizes ambiguities of interpretation, irony, paradox and irreconcilable contradictions that cross-cut, undermine, and confuse any organization-wide or subcultural claims of consensus or clarity (Martin 1992).
In view of the above, as a change agent, I find this imperative for us to relook at organizational culture as a combination of all three perspectives. Simply assuming that organization has a single culture is not enough and will certainly lead to resistance and may result in change initiative failure.
The cultural interpretations vary from department to department which will intern, facilitate unique conceptualization of artifacts, norms, values and basic assumptions, resulting in different interpretations of change initiatives across different departments and teams resulting in change agents faces different types of resistance. It is critical at the planning stage to understand culture for effective management of change resistance.
- Other Reasons of Resistance (But not limited to)
In addition to the above, there are many reasons why resistance occurs, as per literature review by Bruckman, resistance can include following reasons (Bruckman 2008):
· Change in Status quo
· Increased fear and anxiety about the consequences of change – Real or perceived
· Altering of the way people see the world and calling into questions their values and rationality
· Misunderstanding of the change itself
· Mistrust of those leading change
In the context of organizational transformation where the change initiative is big and expected to change entire organization’s way of doing business, the resistance will be more evident covering all or combination of above reasons.
In summary, people resist change due to the fear of unknown, their brains are not able to predict and they feeling threaten, efforts by the organization in trying to change their existing culture, value, and ways of doing things, organizational efforts of bringing them out of their comfort zone adds on this which in totality results in change resistance.
It is imperative for the change agent to have a prior understanding of existing culture in totality and provide sufficient information to change recipients, allow their brains to predict and drive meanings on their own. Facilitate them and engage them in continuous discussions which will help in reducing anxiety and uncertainty.
After understanding what is change resistance and why people resist change, let’s ascertain is Resistance to Change is good or bad?
4. Is Resistance to Change Good or Bad?
In the early days of my HR career, I found change resistance as one of the biggest obstacle, something that bothers a lot and disturb my focus. In some of my initial change projects, I have seen resistance as a clear ‘negative’ phenomenon and recipe for failure. With the passage of time, however, I have realized that resistance is not really a bad phenomenon after all.
Let’s try to understand what some authors and researchers views are about resistance, in their point of view, resistance is ‘good or bad’, we will evaluate this by looking at some of the facts I came across during my research.
The first really relevant statement I found is from Harvard Business Review with the title of ‘The Real Reason People Won’t Change’ written by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, they argued:
“Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia. Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly (unintentionally) applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment. The resulting dynamic equilibrium stalls the effort in what looks like resistance, in fact, a kind of personal immunity to change” (Kegan and Lahey 2001).
The above statement encourages us as a change agent to instead of labeling the behavior as negative and resistant, we must try to understand the hidden competing commitment of colleagues resisting change, which may benefit the overall change initiative.
As per CEB, most organizations identify resistors to change. As per their recent research, manage 23% of the organizations fail to identify resistors whereas 77% of the organizations to identify resistors (CEB 2016). A question came to my mind that, if so many organizations are able to identify resistors, then why many change initiatives fail? The answer to this question is, many organizations end up misidentifying resistance or overlook silent resistors who are more detrimental to the change success (CEB 2016), or change agents are not able to understand the sincere commitment to change and hidden competing commitment demonstrated by resistors.
During my extensive research, I came across a research report by Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W. Ford, they suggested that:
“Resistance to Change is ‘Neutral’, it is neither good nor bad, positive negative, beneficial nor detrimental. Resistance is something that happens when objects come into contact or interact with each other (Ford and Ford 2009)
They continued arguing in their research that Mechanistic view of resistance reminds us that resistance to change is not inherently a ‘bad’ thing, it is actually the change agent who assigns the value to it. They advocated that it is important for the change agent not to ask ‘why is this person resisting?’, rather change agent should be asking ‘why do I call this as resistance’ (Ford and Ford 2009).
I am sure many of you will agree that highlighting lack of resistance is not a change initiative success, but it is an indication of ‘lack of employee engagement’. We should look for change resistance and embrace it with positivity.
You must be thinking why? Because:
A. Resistance to change can prevent bad ideas from implementing
B. Or it may help prevent good ideas implemented badly
Instead of labelling resistors, we should assure that our plan includes the provision (s) of interactions with each and every change recipients to gain better insight into unanticipated aspects of change, when we are able to have flexibility in our plans to accommodate changes recommended by change recipients in Change plan content or Timelines, the success possibilities will certainly increase.
In summary, resistance to change is NOT a negative phenomenon, rather it is a key ingredient for successful change initiative. Resistance allows change agent to relook at change initiative from a different perspective, facilitates him or her to gaining insight to aspects not clear while planning, this paradigm shift of considering resistance as a positive phenomenon will certainly increase change recipient’s engagement and at the same time align change communication thus increase chances of overall success. Now let’s proceed to one of the most important points, how to tackle resistance to change?
5. How to Tackle Resistance to Change?
After establishing that resistance to change is inevitable and it is good for the success of change initiative, we should move on and try to ascertain how we can tackle resistance and what research scholars and different authors have advised based on their experience.
During my research I have seen numerous suggestions to manage the resistance, it was quite a challenge to select few and disregard others. Before I move on to the strategies of managing resistance to change, let’s take a look at resistance to change with the perspective of Neuroscience.
During my research I came across the theory of ‘Mind-set: The New Psychology of Success’ by Carol Dweck, she is a professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She developed a set of 4 statements to test one’s own beliefs (Scarlett 2016). According to her:
“If you agree with the first two statements that suggest a ‘fixed’ mindset where you believe that intelligence is something you are either born with or not and there’s not much you can do about it. If you agree with the second two statements, that suggests a ‘growth mindset: a belief that if we try, we can learn and develop (Scarlett 2016).”
It is a very useful concept and a Mind-set help for the change agent in understanding where resistance can potentially come from i.e. people wit Mindset will usually resist the change and prefer to maintain status quo, they will seek situations that validate them and make them look good (Scarlett 2016). It is important to note though that resistance to change is fluid, the fluid nature of resistance is due to the fact that mindset can be easily changed (Scarlett 2016).
Assuming that we have done a survey and we know the mid-set i.e. Fixed or Growth, now we move on and see some strategies proposed by different authors and understand what they advised to effectively tackle the resistance.
Hilary Scarlett looked at resistance from the perspective of neuroscience and she proposed that resistance to change can be tackled by doing the following steps (Scarlett 2016):
1. Set short-term goals that people can achieve
If an organization is aiming for long-term goals, these should be converted into short-term goals which are achievable. Goal achievement foster motivation and makes us feel good and also helps in keeping positive state of mind.
2. Remind people of past achievements
Reminding the team about past achievements will create a feeling of positivity especially for those colleagues who feel that they will not be able to achieve what is expected from them or colleagues who are struggling with the change initiative.
3. Winnings breeds winning – It’s a virtuous circle
Winning is a habit, once we have done one task well it will boost performance and foster confidence.
4. Give praise and recognition
To foster winning and make it a habit it is essential that people doing well should be recognized and praised, the only imperative condition for this is, the praise or recognition should be genuine. People being praised and recognized must know what they have done well and what behaviour they have to repeat.
Our brains might not like lots and lots of change but they do like a bit of novelty (Scarlett 2016). One of the biggest challenge for us is ‘boredom’. We continuously fight distractions to keep our brain focused on tasks in-hand, in case of repeated tasks over and over again, we tend to lose our focus and end up making mistakes.
6. Laughter / Happiness
It is an established fact and supported by studies done by neuroscientists that laughter and feeling of happiness is good for our brains (Scarlett 2016). Laughter and happiness improves performance and reduce stress.
7. Provide information (Communication)
As explained earlier, our brains are prediction machines, and information is a key ingredient for prediction. In the absence of sufficient information, our brain will not be able to predict and it will start speculating and create anxiety. If person who is speculating is an opinion leader, you can imagine the impact of his / her speculation.
Imagine if you are standing at a bus station where an information board is telling you that next bus will arrive in 20 minutes, if this information is not available to you i.e. next bus will come in 10 minutes or 30 minutes, you will start feeling anxious due to constant speculation in your mind.
There is no specific formula which will help organizations to decide when to communicate and how much to communicate, however, it is essential to have a detailed communication plan to avoid speculations.
8. Allow people to reach their own insights
We as change agents leading change are fully aware of the insight, we have a complete picture of why change is necessary and what will happen if we do not change. Our brains are fully aware outcomes or at-least have sufficient information to drive predictions.For change recipient, however, the Mindset situation is different. They are not fully aware of the insights, people will be much more supportive of change if they are able to come to their own insights about why this is the right course of action (Scarlett 2016).
Change is all about letting go the old habits and old ways of doing things and substituting them with new ones. Mindset can be changed, people can learn new skills. Once change agents have identified the Growth and Fixed Mindset by doing survey and workshops, they can plan learning activities for these groups. This will be very helpful especially for those senior employees who might have told themselves that they have passed the age or learning.
Another perspective of managing resistance to change is from a Managerial response to resistance. Dianne M. Waddel quoted from the research report by John Dewey ‘How we think’ that there are at least three major strategies for dealing with resistance to change (Waddell 2011), i. Empathy and Support, ii. Communication and iii. Participation & Involvement.
1. Empathy and Support
As a change agent, the first step is to try to identify who are the people resisting change, second, try to understand the reasons for their resistance. The initiative by change agent to understand how people are experiencing change will require ample amount of empathy and support (Waddell 2011).
This will require change agent not to label colleagues as resistors and try to ascertain the situation from change resistor’s perspective. This approach will help the change agent to remove the barrier and show the genuineness of change leadership in understanding their concerns, feelings, and perceptions as a result, people who are resisting change will be less defensive and meaningful dialogue will be initiated resulting in increased likelihood of success.
As discussed earlier, resistors can be Vocal resistors or Silent resistors, by effectively using Empathy and Support, change agent can encourage the resistors to share their concerns and fears. This mutual relationship will help both parties to jointly solve the issues and help in modifying the negative perception of change resistors.
As mentioned above, that our brains are prediction machines which are actively busy in constantly predicting and trying to make meanings to keep us out of harm. If our brain is not able to, predict (Scarlett 2016), ambiguity and uncertainty will create uncomfortable feelings resulting in initiation of threat signals which will ultimately result in behavior modification opposite to what is anticipated by the change agents.
One of the most effective ways of tackling this situation is to ensure adequate information is provided to the employees which will (if not fully eliminate) reduce the possibility of rumors and gossips triggering anxiety. It is essential, however, to remember that there is no specific formula which will help organizations to decide when to communicate and how much to communicate, however, it is essential to have a detailed communication plan to avoid speculations.
3. Participation & Involvement
In a practical perspective, one of most common and certainly the oldest yet most effective strategies for managing resistance is to involve change recipients directly in planning and implementation of change initiatives (Argyris and Schon 1996). The participation and involvement of change recipients will foster dialogues, sharing of ideas and identification of pitfalls not visible to change agent.
In my view one of the major advantages of participation and involvement of people who have a need for involvement will impact on their motivation, involvement creates a sense of belonging and commitment to implementing change.
In summary, managing resistance to change can be done in many ways by using combination of techniques. The neuroscience perspective outlines a list of things a change agent should use to create a buying-in and acceptance to change. In addition to this success, fine-tuning possibilities can be significantly increased by providing empathy and support, engaging staff members by managing effective communication and ensuring to create an environment of participation and involvement.
Change initiatives especially Organizational Transformation efforts implies drastic and radical changes in how employees perceive, behave and even think. Transformational changes are efforts fine-tuning the behavior existing process, procedures and associated status quo, these change initiatives are designed with an intent of ‘changing’ and ‘altering’ the ways by which organization operates in its current business context and the way it relates to its internal and external environment. Such initiative will surely demand a change in organizational values and its culture which help in shaping behavior and this change effort will surely face employee ‘RESISTANCE’ in some shape and form. It is important to have an understanding as to the basis and form of resistance so that it can be managed in a constructive manner (Waddell 2011).
Though all change initiatives will face resistance, however, not everyone will resist change, there will be a relatively smaller number of change resistors. It is imperative however to understand the resistance to change and avoid labelling change resistors and consider their objections as negative. Their objections might be beneficial for change initiative and provide valuable insights for the change agents and change initiative.
As a change agent, we should avoid falling into the trap of ‘Planning Fallacy’ and ensure that we keep people aspect on top while planning the change initiative. Usually, our brains do not like too much change however, we all enjoy a bit of novelty. The real issue will arise if our brains are not able to predict and feel uncertainty. This is where people feel anxiety and start gossip as they are exposed to the threat. This threat situation is triggered as a result of fear of the unknown, unable to predict, and expected change in existing Culture, Values and Norms and change in current status quo. As a change agent, it is essential to understand the above reasons and try to ascertain the current organizational culture from three perspectives i.e. (1) The integration perspective (2) The differentiation perspective and (3) The fragmentation perspective.
It is essential that change agents should be provided with a basic understanding of Neurosciences in addition to general training of managing resistance. The aspects of neurosciences will help agents to understand the thinking patterns of change resistors and ascertain the mind set of change recipients i.e. Growth Mind-set or Fixed Mind-set.
The mind-set can be changed, focused efforts of change agents on people with Growth mind-sent will help change agents in increasing the possibility of success, this will also help in increasing the their participation resulting in better engagement in the change initiative.
Management’s timely communication and reasonable empathy and support are some of the key ingredient of the successful change initiative and most importantly these steps will help change agents in managing the resistance effectively.
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