How Do You Anticipate & Overcome Resistance to Change in the Workplace?
Overcoming resistance to change is one of the major tenants of any organizational change project. The sources of resistance to change can vary and are as unique as each individual experiencing the change.
Whether you’re speaking about resistance to change in the workplace or resistance to a change in a personal habit, it’s natural and expected for people to push back against a change in their environment.
Strategies to overcome resistance to change have been developed for hundreds of years. A change can’t be successful unless it can overcome the resistance that pushes back against that change.
This is very true when it comes to any type of organizational change, which is why overcoming resistance to change in organizations is one of the most important things that a change management team does.
Effectively Managing Resistance to Organizational Change
Approximately 70% of change projects fail to meet their desired objectives, and according to Meliorate, studies show that the main reason for that failure is employee resistance towards organizational change.
Employee resistance to organizational change is responsible for 39% of change management project failures.
There are several ways to overcome resistance to change, which we’ll outline below. It’s vital to address resistance both proactively and reactively to ensure an organizational transformation doesn’t fall victim to barriers it can’t overcome.
Of all the challenges of change management in an organization, getting past resistance from leaders, executives, and employees is one of the biggest. But with the right strategies to overcome resistance to change, you can keep a change project on track and transform resistance into acceptance and support.
What You’ll Learn
This AGS insight article will teach you the following important information about overcoming resistance to change:
- What is employee resistance to change?
- What are the different reasons for resistance to change?
- How can you identify sources of resistance to change?
- What are the ways to overcome resistance to change?
We’ve also included at the end two handy downloads in the form of a Managing Resistance to Change PDF and Managing Resistance to Change PPT.
Free Change Management Templates
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What is Employee Resistance to Change?
Employee resistance to change manifests when someone in an organization is against a particular change project or does not want to adopt the behaviors needed for it to be successful.
Sources of resistance to change can vary according to the individual and the type of organizational change that is happening. It’s important to look at both factors when overcoming employee resistance to change.
A good rule of thumb to remember is that the more a change impacts a person, the higher the chance for resistance.
For example, you may have a stellar employee that is a team player and that you would not expect to be resistant. But if the change is highly impactful and involves the employee having to relocate or transfer departments and leave colleagues behind, their chance of resistance goes up considerably.
Ultimately, employee resistance to change means they aren’t supportive of the change being made and may not actively participate in it and could forcefully resist.
Examples of Employees Resistance Towards Organizational Change
Overcoming resistance to change in organizations means being able to identify employee resistance to change. Sometimes, it can be very vocal and easy to spot, other times, employees may protest a change subtly. An example of this would be if they continued to use the old method of doing something without telling anyone.
Here are some examples of resistance to change in the workplace:
- Voicing displeasure about the change to managers or colleagues
- Skipping meetings about the change project
- Lack of willing participation in change training
- Continuing to do things the “old way”
- Vocal support of the change, but then not following that up with actions
- Disengagement from the change project
- Continually being unavailable to meet with the change management team
- Not returning emails, calls, or surveys related to the change project
- Increased absenteeism after change project began
- Having a negative attitude about the change, even if it’s not vocal
- Calling out problems with the change they “knew would happen” after go-live
- Actively working to put together a resistance coalition to stop the change
There are Different Levels of Resistance Impact
When change managers are working through the challenges of change management in an organization, they’ll do a stakeholder assessment, which helps them proactively identify the potential resistance impact each person will have if they resist the change.
It’s important to be aware of who has the most ability to derail a change project and work with overcoming employee resistance to change for those stakeholders to avoid the failure of a change initiative.
Here are examples of different levels of impact when it comes to overcoming resistance to change:
- Executives/Upper Management: People in upper management may have control over the change project budget and other resources. This means that they could shut down the project if they aren’t supportive of it. This is a group that you need to have completely on board and in support of the change program.
- Supervisors/Managers: While this level may not be able to impact your budget, they can impact whether their department or direct reports adopt the new ways of doing things. Even though they may not be able to stop the project, they can keep it from fully realizing the desired results.
- Employees: Each individual employee may not have a large impact on the success of a change project; however, anyone in a key role, could derail the effectiveness of a change if they don’t support it. Employees banded together in resistance can cause more challenges for a change management team.
The key to overcoming resistance to change is understanding the sources of that resistance. That’s what we’re going to discuss next.
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What Causes Resistance to Change?
It’s important not to be thrown off by employees’ resistance towards organizational change or take it personally.
Human beings are naturally resistant to a change of habit, environment, or behavior, and resisting is many times an unconscious first reflex when they find out about a change.
The concept of resistance was introduced by Sigmund Freud when he observed that certain patients became resistant to divulging uncomfortable information during therapy.
He reasoned it was a function of the ego and super-ego and may be partially coming from a subconscious place. Bringing an understanding of the reason for resistance and providing education, he posited, could help a patient become more accepting.
It’s important to understand that reasons for change resistance come from a very personal place and are typically driven by emotions. They can also be related both to internal attitudes towards routine and habit, as well as external forces such as past experience with a change gone wrong.
Resistance to Change Scale
Before we get into examples of reasons for resistance to change in an organization, let’s look at the Resistance to Change (RTC) Scale. This is a scale used in psychology to understand a person’s feelings in general about a change.
It uses an RTC questionnaire (similar to this one) to see how generally receptive or non-receptive a person may be to change of any type. The scale rates an individual on four factors that can contribute to resistance to organizational change or change of any type.
- Routine Seeking: This is a person that enjoys routine and habit more than unpredictability. They don’t like surprises and get anxious if there are changes made in their daily routine or if plans are changed unexpectedly.
- Emotional Reaction: This would indicate sources of resistance to change that come from anxiety and stress. If someone immediately acts emotionally and jumps to all the negatives that can come from a change, they would be scored high on the emotional reaction factor.
- Short-term Focus: This would be a person that looks only at the short-term disruptions or problems that a change would cause, rather than being able to see past that to the long-term benefits.
- Cognitive Rigidity: Someone that is set in their ways and doesn’t change their mind easily would be scored high on the cognitive rigidity factor. Their reasons for resistance to change may be simply because they like the way things are done now.
These four factors on the RTC Scale give us insight into the internal reasons for resistance to change in an organization.
Reasons for Resistance to Change in an Organization
Overcoming resistance to change in organizations requires the change management team and leadership to understand some of the key sources of resistance to change.
Some of these are more easily overcome than others. Still, with the right strategies for overcoming resistance to change in organizations, any resistance can be resolved and changed into either acceptance or support for a change.
- Don’t Understand Need for Change: Employees that don’t know why something needs to be changed, can be resistant—especially those who are logical thinkers and need to connect actions to the outcome.
- Fear of the Unknown: Overcoming resistance to change often involves helping employees move past fears about what the change might mean. They may be afraid they’ll lose their job or that their working life will be worse after the change.
- Unsure How They’ll Benefit: While the benefits a change is bringing to an organization may be communicated clearly, that’s not the same thing as the “WIIFM” (i.e., What’s in it for me?). Employees can resist if they don’t think the change will benefit them or that it will make their job harder.
- Distrust/Personality Conflicts: If the person that suggested the change isn’t liked or trusted by an employee, then they can resist the change solely on that basis.
- They’re Attached to the Current Process: Something that can cause employee resistance to change is if they were involved in putting the current process in place. They may take the change as a personal rejection and devaluation of their place in the organization.
- Bad Experience With Past Change: If the last change project the company went through was not well executed, the employee might naturally assume that this change will be no different, and thus resist it.
- Change Overload: If an organization is one that makes multiple changes, then employee reasons for resistance to organizational change can be that they’re overwhelmed. They may feel as soon as they get settled with new software, the CEO decides to change it again, giving them a built-in resistance to “yet another” change.
- Supervisor is Resistant: Employees tend to follow the lead of their supervisors and managers. If their supervisor doesn’t see value in the change or is resisting it, there is a much higher chance that the employees they lead will follow their example.
- Peer Pressure: Another type of outside influence that can cause employee resistance to change is if enough of their co-workers are resisting the change. They may resist too out of peer pressure and not wanting to be the odd man or odd woman out.
- Afraid They Can’t Learn the New Way: Not all people pick up new processes or software easily. They may be afraid that they won’t have the ability to learn the new process, which could mean an uncertain future at the company for them.
- Attached to their Habits: People can become very attached to the habits of their daily routine and be resistant to changing those habits. The change would mean a loss for them of behaviors that they do almost automatically and that they have a hard time letting go of.
- They’re Stressed About Other Things: Whether it’s been a stressful month or three in their department or an employee is going through a stressful event at home, putting a change on top of that could be the last straw. They may resist because they’re already stressed out about other things and can’t handle something else.
- Lack of Incentive: Part of overcoming resistance to change is understanding that you’re asking employees to do something for the benefit of the organization. If you don’t provide some incentive for them to participate, they may be ambivalent about the change.
- They Doubt the Change Will Work: Naysayers are common sources of resistance to change. Those are the people who say something won’t work before they even give it a chance. This is often due to not understanding the problem the change is trying to solve or taking time to understand the suggested resolution.
How Can Resistance to Change Be Overcome?
No matter what the reasons for resistance to change, by using the right strategies, you can resolve and overcome these challenges of change management in an organization.
Ways to overcome resistance to change include using a resistance management tool or spreadsheet in which you can track stakeholders and their reasons for resistance. This allows you to manage intervention activities for overcoming resistance to change in the workplace for each person.
We’ve included our process to use for overcoming resistance to change in a Managing Resistance to Change PDF and Managing Resistance to Change PPT, which are available at the end of the article.
Here is an overview of the process for overcoming employee resistance to change.
Plan for Resistance
While a world without any employee resistance to change would make change management much easier, it’s not the reality of human nature. You need to expect resistance and understand it’s a normal part of the reaction to change.
You can plan for resistance by reading about resistance management to understand the reasons for resistance to change in an organization and be prepared with strategies to overcome resistance to change when it occurs.
Seek Out Potential Resistance
Why would you want to go looking for employee resistance? Because if you can proactively address potential sources of resistance to change up front at the beginning of a change project, it can keep resistance problems from happening and spreading to others in the same department.
When seeking out proactive resistance, you want to both look at the history of stakeholders and look at how this current change will be impacting them.
People most likely to resist would be ones that showed resistance to a past change and those who are being majorly impacted by the current change.
Here are ways to get ahead of employees resistance towards organizational change by staying one step ahead of it:
- Do an assessment of stakeholders and their past experience with change
- Interview supervisors to get their input on potential resistance from their direct reports
- Conduct a survey of employees on their feelings about the proposed change
- Review current workloads of departments/employees (look for hectic work pace, etc.)
- Do an impact assessment to identify stakeholders being impacted most
Deploy Proactive Resistance Management
Proactive resistance management is about trying to win over those being impacted by a change before resistance really has a chance to occur.
For example, you may find during your stakeholder assessment that a supervisor named Tim Cooper was left with a mess to clean up from a change project gone bad a few years back. This means he’s likely to be suspicious and resistant to a new change, thinking it may likewise negatively impact him and the team.
To proactively manage Tim’s resistance, you would speak with him and acknowledge that his department was unfairly impacted after the last project. You would want to reassure him that you’ve considered what went wrong at that time to keep that from happening again.
Then lay out the steps you’ll take to ensure his department doesn’t suffer the same problem during this change.
Proactive resistance is about communication designed to allay fears, address potential resistance points, and hopefully reassure someone enough that they will not have any reasons for resistance to change.
Watch for Reactive Resistance
Resistance challenges of change management in an organization also require being reactive. While you can try to catch any potential resistance proactively, there will always be some that come out of the blue that you weren’t aware of.
Watching for resistance throughout the change project implementation will help you bring that resistance out into the light where you can deal with it, rather than it staying in the shadows, possibly poisoning your project outcome.
Here are some of the ways to watch for and identify employee resistance to change:
- Observe employee behavior when in change meetings and training
- Get the help of managers and supervisors to watch for change resistance
- Ask your change champions network to bring any co-worker concerns to you
- Survey employees throughout the change to see how they feel about the process
- Look for non-participants (those not filling out surveys, skipping meetings, etc.)
It’s essential to keep an eye out for resistance throughout the change project because the project itself may have caused reasons for resistance to change that an employee did not have at the start.
It’s always best to go looking for reactive resistance, rather than finding out about it after it’s gotten much bigger and could derail your project.
Deploy Reactive Resistance Management
While with proactive resistance management, you were attempting to address a concern that might cause resistance, with reactive resistance management, you need to address a specific concern that a person or group of people already have.
You want to make sure you fully listen to their sources of resistance to change and don’t just assume you know what they’re going to say. They have to fully trust that you care about their input before you have an opportunity to have them listen to what you have to say.
Reactive resistance management is about validating their feelings that are causing the employee resistance and then giving them the answers and reassurance that they need for overcoming resistance to change.
Document Resistance Management Process
It’s important that you document both the reasons for resistance to change brought up by different stakeholders as well as your strategies to overcome resistance to change. This information will be invaluable to the next change management team when they’re doing their stakeholder analysis.
It’s also helpful for the organization and change management team to have so they can anticipate future resistance to change in the workplace, understand the sources of resistance to change, and the ways to overcome resistance to change that worked.
Documentation can be made easier by using an Excel or cloud-based resistance management tool.
Related: Bridges’ Transition Model for Change
Strategies to Overcome Resistance to Change
Because there are multiple reasons for resistance to change, it’s important to know all the various strategies to overcome resistance to change. One strategy may work for certain people, but not others.
Some strategies, like communication, should be used for overcoming resistance to change in general with everyone – it’s just good change management best practices.
However, certain situations may require the need for a particular strategy that you may not want to use with every person, such as offering an incentive to resolve resistance.
Before we get into the different strategies to overcome resistance to change, you should know a few rules of thumb about resistance management:
- It’s not about YOU. Don’t take resistance personally, otherwise, you risk your own feelings getting in the way of your resistance management strategy.
- Don’t shame or punish employees for voicing resistance; it’s often coming from legitimate concerns or feelings of anxiety or fear about the change.
- Managing resistance is a continuous process. Just because someone is supportive of the change today, doesn’t mean sources of resistance won’t pop up later.
The following are 7 strategies to overcome resistance to change in the workplace.
1. Listen and Invite Feedback
If employees just feel they’re being told what to do, rather than invited to be a part of the process, they can be more resistant to the change. Sometimes all someone wants is to be heard.
One strategy for overcoming resistance to change in organizations is to invite employee feedback in meetings, webinars, and surveys. Let them know you respect their feedback and then use that to guide how you’ll address their resistance reasons appropriately.
Employee feedback can help you find potential problem areas of a change project and give you the opportunity to address them before they cause a roadblock. Giving employees a chance to be heard and letting them know you value their voice can also help move them to a supporting state from a resisting one.
2. Communication & Vision Sharing
Resistance to organizational change can often come from a lack of information or understanding about the change project. Employees may wonder, “Why is this happening?” And they may think, “Things are just fine the way they are!”
Often just knowing the reason the change is happening and the vision and purpose behind the change can move them from a resisting state to a supporting state.
Create a vision statement that embodies the positive goals of the change and make sure stakeholders understand the reasoning behind the change initiative, as well as how it will benefit not only the organization, but also them and their colleagues. (Tell them their WIIFM, i.e., what’s in it for me.)
Overcoming Reasons for Resistant to Change in an Organization
3. Provide Participation Opportunities
Inviting resisting stakeholders to participate in various areas of the change project can help in overcoming resistance to change by making them a part of the process.
Look for ways you can create participation opportunities that allow creative and analytical input on the change project. A few ideas are:
- Invite resistant users to be beta testers and provide feedback on the new workflow.
- Encourage someone who isn’t particularly supportive of the change to join the change champions team (where they’ll be surrounded by positivity about the change).
- Invite resisting employees to a change management meeting for a (behind the scenes look at the process).
- Encourage resistant employees to attend fun “milestone celebration” events.
Being invited to have a voice and participate in the change process can often give resistant stakeholders a new perspective and appreciation for the goals the change is designed to achieve.
4. Manager/Colleague Support
People are often more receptive to those they respect. This includes employee managers and supervisors. For executives and higher-ups, it might mean their executive colleagues whose opinion they respect.
If you’re having trouble overcoming resistance to change with a particular stakeholder, bringing in a manager or colleague to speak with them and address their concerns can sometimes get you a lot farther than speaking to them yourself as the change manager.
Through your leadership coaching phase of change management, you will prepare managers and other supervisors for helping to manage resistance. So, when you hit a need for their support, they should hopefully have the skills to necessary to guide an employee or colleague to supporting or accepting the change.
5. Negotiate to Gain Acceptance
Negotiation is not a strategy you’ll use with every resisting stakeholder. It’s generally going to be used with those that have the power to derail a change project completely, and only once you’ve exhausted other ways to overcome resistance to change.
An example of who you might need to negotiate with to gain acceptance for the change would be a high-level manager who had the ability to indefinitely delay the change or a team of employees that have banded together in resistance for a common reason.
In this case, you may need to possibly negotiate changing an aspect of the project that is negatively impacting them or provide some other type of incentive to gain their acceptance to the change and keep the project from being delayed or stopped.
6. Convince with Data & Analytics
Some people will be resistant to change because they fear a bad outcome or don’t see a tangible reason the change is necessary.
For those employees who are the analytical type, “Show them the data!” Meaning, give them the hard facts and figures they need to win them over and assuage their concerns.
If you can show them how employees in their department will save X minutes per day with a new automated process or how sales (and their bonus) will increase by X% a year due to a new change, they’ll be more likely to be won over and feel they have the information necessary to fully support the change.
7. Support Through Education & Training
One of the common sources of resistance to change in the workplace is that employees are afraid they’ll be thrown into the new process without support or help. They fear they won’t be able to properly do the job that they know so well now after the change to the “new way” of doing things.
If you provide education about the change, tell employees how they will be supported to get through the change, and have a well-planned training program, you can resolve this type of resistance to change.
Once an employee knows they’ll be given the time and support needed to help them to adapt to the new way of doing things, it can eliminate this type of resistance that comes from fear of not having support.
Popular Article: Resolving Barriers to Change in Healthcare & Physicians
Downloads: Managing Resistance to Change PDF & PPT
AGS has developed an easy checklist for you to use in overcoming resistance to change. It includes our AGS process for resistance management, typical reasons for resistance to change, and strategies to overcome resistance to change in the workplace.
This Managing Resistance to Change Checklist is available as a downloadable PowerPoint or PDF document. Click the links below to download the document of your choice.
Conclusion: Guide to Overcoming Resistance to Change by Employees
When dealing with resistance to organizational change, it’s important to remember that it is a natural part of the change management process. It is human nature to resist change, and that resistance often comes from an emotional place.
The job of the change management team is to understand the sources of resistance to change in the workplace so they can use both proactive and reactive strategies to overcome resistance to change.
While resistance can come from a number of places, there are several different tactics you can use in overcoming resistance to change in organizations to ensure change projects stay on track and achieve desired results.
Using change management best practices and a process to help in documenting resistance and resistance mitigation, can make it easier to manage employee resistance throughout the change project.
Free Change Management Templates 1-on-1 Change Manager Coaching Increase Your Change Management Successes & Expertise. Have you been assigned to a change management project? Get the best change management coaching. Discuss your plans and ensure you have not missed anything before delivering them to your stakeholders. Increase your change successes. Safe environment. 1-on-1 change coaching. No question is too small. Ask me anything. FREE Change Management Templates (Excel, PDF, PPT)
Authors: Ogbe Airiodion (Senior Change Management Lead) and Francesca Crolley (Content Manager)
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