Resistance to Change

Change Management Series – Chapter 5

A theme through this series of blogs about workplace change management is resistance. For those Star Trek fans among you – the phrase “resistance is futile” will resonate. An alien race called the Borg became a sinister force in the galaxy, intent upon assimilating other races into their “collective”. Given their strength, technological sophistication and sheer brute force, this foe declared that resisting their advances was futile – the party being assimilated should just give up and surrender!! Continue reading and you’ll understand how resistance to change can be similar.

What is resistance to change?

Resistance is what happens when people perceive a coming change as a threat. It takes many forms – it can be overt or more subtle, it can be at an individual level or displayed on a more group or team level. It can be organised or more sporadic.

In the Star Trek universe, resistance against “assimilation” resulted in epic battles and efforts to outwit the enemy, to escape their clutches in order for the humans to survive and preserve their culture, way of life and ultimately their independence.

As someone that has worked in change management for many years – there is more than a little resonance in this analogy for me! For many people facing a change in their working life, it certainly can feel like a battle for survival – to preserve the old way of doing things, to avoid spending energy on a change one does not believe in, to conform to a new way that is being imposed on us. The change is upsetting and threatening, not only to the way the work is done, but to the established social arrangements for doing work.

What does resistance to change look like?

Recognising the symptoms of resistance calls for alertness on the part of the person responsible for implementing the change. Careful listening and observing behaviour will provide a range of clues that people aren’t engaged in the change – and not all of it will be obvious. Some people may argue strongly against the change and provide a range of reasons why “it won’t work”. At least with those people, you know where you stand!

Others may simply avoid the subject, not engage in discussions about it or not even turn up to events where the change is being addressed. Here it is less obvious that they are resisting – their behaviour is passive and it is hard to identify the reasons for their disengagement.

Yet again, others may continuously seek to debate the rights and wrongs of the change – raising issue after issue, taking the discussion down rabbit holes, using the change as another example of how the organisation is negligent in the way it operates, or asking for repeated explanations of the same subject/s. While some of this discussion may be productive, this type of person is generally looking to continue the arguments, as a way of never moving forward – while appearing to be co-operating.

All these situations need to be recognised for what they are. The trouble is that it is often the first and last categories (the upfront resistors and the debaters) that consume the most energy and attention – generally because they make the most noise. What shouldn’t be overlooked is that they may be a small number – leaving the middle category (the quiet, withdrawn group) unidentified as also resisting the change.

Disturbing the social order

As mentioned earlier, it is worth noting that workplace change combines procedural / physical / behavioural changes, but also social changes. For many, the change may signal a shift in their standing and relationships within the organisation. This is particularly so for managers, who may feel that a move to open plan working for example, (after having had a private office) reflects upon their status, authority and reputation. Such a perceived change in status can be experienced by the manager as equal to that of a physical threat – and as such can be very troubling.

The way work is carried out relies on relationships between individuals. When we introduce new ways of working, with clever plans for enabling people to collaborate and network more – this again can disturb the social order. People can perceive that the organisation is interfering with the way they do their work, with the implication that it is lacking in some way/s. Some are naturally more open to new ideas and ways of operating – but others will take time to adjust to the new ideas, until the new social order can be established.

What can be done to address resistance?

The important thing is to not try to “overcome” resistance, but to use it to your advantage. Resistance is a warning sign that something is wrong. Simply identifying resistant people doesn’t tell you what is wrong, so it’s vital that time is taken to understand the problem from the resistor’s point of view.

There could be all manor of reasons why the people are resisting the change – including things which have nothing to do with it. If someone is worried about their job security, their relationship with a difficult manager, their progress with a troublesome piece of work – all those things can manifest as resistance to the new change. Here are a few reasons why this can happen:

  • Resisting the new change is something they can control (where they are struggling to assert control in the other areas)
  • Unhappiness in the other area causes them to withdraw their participation and co-operation in other initiatives – everything gets tarred with the same brush (and blamed for the issues experienced elsewhere – i.e. “my manager wants me to make this latest change when she never provides me with any support in my role”)
  • They are distracted by the issues being experienced elsewhere. If someone is worried about their job security, they are more likely to be looking for a new job than helping the organisation successfully implement this latest change

Where people are unhappy about aspects of the change itself (as opposed to blaming it for other things that aren’t going well), they still may be off track. Very often, people are upset about an aspect of the change that they THINK is going to feature in the new world – whereas in fact they may have misunderstood, listened to rumours, or made assumptions. Thus it is vital to listen and understand their point of view – because at the very least, this will reveal if they are representing something that is actually within the scope of the change.

As mentioned in an earlier blog – it is critical that people understand the truth about the planned change – the why, the what, the how and the when. Otherwise you can spend a lot of time defending the change against allegations based on a false understanding. Not very productive.

Hence the change management process should ensure people are given all the information they need in order to make up their own mind about what they will win and what they might lose. They need to be able to engage in a dialogue in order to have their legitimate questions answered and to make sense of the change and what it means to them.

Involving people in the change process is so important. To get involved, people need to feel that their participation can have an impact – that it is not just about paying lip service to their views. Real participation is based on respect – and the way in which it is requested and managed will either be consistent with the way people are used to being treated in the organisation, or it may be at odds with it. If they are suddenly asked to participate, out of the blue, when all the evidence is that the “organisation asks but never listens”, then this strategy is unlikely to be successful.

Although written about a manufacturing setting, a piece in the Harvard Business Review makes interesting reading  on this topic – particularly in the ways in which participation is sought and managed.

Conclusion

Finally, to return to my opening Science Fiction analogy – managing the transition of change can often feel like a battle. The best way to set up a conflict and resistance is to make people feel that they are being “done to”, that they have no control, that nobody cares what they think and that the organisation is simply trying to coerce or assimilate them in order to get its way. If that were the case, it would be so unbelievably counter productive that the change would deserve to fail. Sadly, many organisations proceed on this basis – forcing the change through, claiming “they’ll get used to it”. Given that the very performance of the business is at stake, is that really a sensible approach?


This blog is part of a series of observations about behavioural change management which we hope will provide readers with a good understanding of what is needed to help people change, or in this case, the cause of their resistance to change.  This is based on 25 years’ experience supporting clients making a change to new ways of working. Next time we will consider how a change management process can help a company.