Resistance to change will probably be the main issue that people with leadership and management responsibilities in the companies will be facing in the near future (and not only in the near…).
Over the past three decades, the world has moved faster and faster, forcing companies to face rapidly evolving scenarios with ever-changing strategic and organizational arrangements.
The main reason for this is the advent of the Internet, which has generated disruptive mutations:
- A speed of communication and knowledge diffusion which has never been recorded before. A new mobility that has accelerated innovation, especially the one classified as disruptive, i.e., capable of generating new markets;
- The ability to reach new consumers and customers in any part of the world with relative ease and speed;
- The rise of social networks, leading to changes in marketing strategies;
- The birth and establishment of digital leverage as a competitive variable, which led in a few years to the growth and rise to the top of companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon.
Today we are on the eve of a further change, one that promises to be no less disruptive: the advent of artificial intelligence and the need to successfully address an ecological transition, without which we will accept that climate change will eventually destroy the model of life we plan to deliver to our children.
The last two factors will have a further accelerating effect on resistance to change in companies: significant percentages of the jobs and professions that contribute to family incomes today will disappear and be replaced by others, about which we know nothing.
We can imagine something, but we do not have the knowledge that would help us prepare and train people who will be called to manage them.
It is therefore clear that change will have a tremendous impact on the business; the questions that I will ask in the rest of this post and which I will do my best to answer are intended as a contribution to anyone who holds a position as a change agent, that is, as a person in the organization who has primary responsibility for managing the transition of a process from one state to another.
Why do people resist change?
When we register in people resistance to a change that we have embraced, we tend to have towards them an attitude that is not sympathetic to their reasons, if not even hostile.
Actually, these people are not necessarily “bad,” and may have comprehensible reasons for resistance: here are a few, often valid for individuals, groups, and corporate functions.
Uncertainty about the future
- Loss of the job.
- Loss of significance of the role.
- Loss of self/team benefits.
- Lower organizational exposure/visibility.
- Fear of not being able to cope with the new situation.
Lack of background in dealing with the new context
- Knowledge of the situation, the topic and/or the processes involved and/or the tools involved.
- The time required to build the knowledge/competence needed to deal with the new situation that is not compatible with the goals of the change.
- Lack of understanding of the change underway and its significance, for self and the organization.
- Poor understanding of the new role/task and its contents.
Different views about the real value of change
- Different attitudes taken by people/teams motivated to contribute to change.
- Doubts about the real benefits of change.
- Differences in the view about what needs to be changed, approach, and tools to be used.
Additional work that is not sustainable
- Participation in teams or test projects is considered not compatible with the existing workloads.
- Additional commitments generated by management pressure and/or the fallout of change.
How does resistance to change become manifest?
The people’s attitudes can be diverse and not always visible, so observation of the dynamics and dialogue assume a crucial role.
Below are the types of attitudes I had the occasion to observe during my professional life.
Leaving the company
- An extreme reaction, mainly individual, of rejection of the change project: the person considers the new situation unsustainable and prefers to leave.
- We may see entire teams looking for another job, with a decline, not always evident to management, in the quality of performance.
- People/groups tend to alter the change nature by unilateral initiatives.
- They happen to work to grow resistance by convincing others to oppose it in some way.
- The tendency of people/groups to delay change, such as acting only when instructions are clear and detailed.
- It is adopted when people feel they do not have enough power to oppose or influence the change, or opposing is considered too risky.
- People/groups let the change take its course without interfering, trusting that other factors will intervene to block it, or that the agents of change do not have sufficient “energy” to carry it out.
- People and/or groups are aware that change is inevitable: they do not share it, favour it, or hinder it.
How to overcome resistance to change?
Before moving on to the analysis of the actions I suggest taking, I find it useful to emphasize the forms, by no means obvious, that in my experience the consensus toward change can take. Toward them, it is crucial to convey people’s attitudes.
- People/groups react with uncritical indifference and/or passive approval.
- People fall into alignment out of appeasement, without making much effort to understand what is going on.
- People and/or groups want to improve the situation but have a different vision of change than the one proposed.
- They accept change with reserve and propose solutions: resistance can be overcome through negotiation.
- People/groups offer full support for the change and actively engage to help and enhance its probability of success.
- It seems clear that the implementation of the change is linked to the transition from resistance to consensus if not support.
How to accompany this complex transition?
It is important to note that “resistant” behaviours are evident when people resign or “get in the way,” but in other cases, they may remain unnoticed and the likely decline in performance may not be immediately evident.
Therefore, people in leadership positions and change agents must pay close attention to latent forms of opposition (resistance and passive acceptance), with the understanding that silence does not necessarily mean consent.
We can now dwell on the drivers we can employ to bring about the desired change, which I briefly indicate below.
- Effective organizational communication clarifies the goals and content of change, making use of group presentations, individual interviews, involvement in pilot projects, etc.
- It also helps prevent coffee machine chatter and subsequent time wasting.
- Allows people to fully understand the goals and content of the change project and supports the creation of a climate of trust and collaboration.
- It also enables change agents to keep their “pulse” on the situation and get constant feedback.
- Essential to bridge any knowledge gaps (hard and/or soft skills), always a source of resistance, conscious or not.
- Includes listening to difficulties and problems and providing help in overcoming them; it is especially useful when people are frustrated and have difficulty accepting the new.
Negotiation oriented to cooperation
- Formal and informal tools for overcoming resistance and getting people/groups to cooperate.
- It can be employed when there are different perceptions of change, and people/groups think they “lose” something in the new situation.
- Represents the last resource and can be employed when people who are “playing at the edge” drag the organization into endless positional negotiations, which is not cooperative at all.
In short, when resistance continues to be consistent and all possible means have been employed, the use of formal power may be an option; however, it is important to be aware that its use can be costly and can generate fallout.
How to implement change?
In the previous paragraphs, we have seen how resistance to change manifests itself and the drivers we can employ to overcome it. Now it is time to consider how to implement this by identifying the types of people through whom we can promote the transition to change.
First, we need to engage Innovators, for whom the consensus toward change is total. They are pioneers, that is, people who experiment for the sake of exploring new solutions and are willing to take the risk of failure; indulging their attitude, and employing it as a driver to reach the goal is a winning strategy.
Next, we will engage the Early Users, corporate opinion leaders who value their reputation as “cool” people, first to embrace new things; their resistance to change is modest, as long as the new is “smart” enough to present an opportunity to distinguish themselves.
This is followed by the involvement of the Early Majority, who seek in the new an opportunity to improve productivity and performance in role management; the change agent must convince them, and it is essential to engage them by “selling” the benefits to them.
More complicated is the management of the Lazy Majority, who have similar characteristics to the Early Majority but before committing to change ensure that adequate organizational support exists.
Finally, here are the Laggards, the slowest in adopting change, to which they succumb when it’s evident you cannot avoid it; it is important to take care that they do not negatively influence the Lazy Majority and stimulate it by flanking them with the Early Majority.
What are the crucial aspects of the motivation to change?
After thinking about the scenario in which organizations will be operating and the drivers they can employ in bringing about change, we can summarize four key aspects on which I recommend focusing attention:
- Communication and involvement of people in the vision of the future are critical. Knowledge and awareness of the direction taken by the organization will reduce uncertainty and increase confidence toward the future;
- Listening to people, their doubts, and their feedback on the change project will be crucial to achieving goals. However, even more important will be listening to the silence, because those who are silent do not always consent. And they often become chatty at the coffee machine;
- pay attention to the psychological aspects of the transition to change, because people are not machines and their motivation to confidently move toward the new cannot be apart from a vision of a better future;
- last, but not least, a factor to consider in individual motivation is preparation to face the new. Before implementing change, it will be appropriate to analyze knowledge gaps and design a plan to make up for any shortcomings; of course, sharing it with the people involved.
In conclusion, I want to focus my attention on this very last point and share my experience; in all the change processes I have faced, as a manager and as a coach, the definition of an appropriate training plan to enable individuals to face the new with confidence has been a key factor in reducing resistance to change.
What are your thoughts on this?
Do you have different experiences?