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Why Do People Resist Change?

By Kevin Lawrence

Leaders tend to be people who feel comfortable with change. That doesn’t mean they’re risk-takers, who thrive on change for the excitement it brings. Neither does it mean that all leaders will drive substantial change within their own organizations. What it means is that to be a leader an individual needs to feel comfortable with the idea of negotiating their way through the unknown. That unknown ranges from the day-to-day shift in market conditions to the unknown of launching a new product or expanding into a new country. The degree of change differs but the fact of change is still there, hardwired into the leader’s role.

To take that on -- to become a leader -- is suggestive of certain personality traits. These include an individual’s confidence in their ability to deal with the unexpected; belief that they can rise to new challenges and an attitude that views challenge as a way in which to grow. Without these levels of determination, confidence and optimism, it’s unlikely that someone would become a leader. But the very qualities that equip them to lead can make it hard for them to empathize with other peoples’ fear of, and resistance to, change.

The fear of change

Some people view change through a very different lens to that of the leader. Instead of an opportunity to gain new skills and to grow, they see a threat. Will the change make their skills redundant? Will adapting to the change be something they can’t do? Will the change cost them -- emotionally/mentally/financially? Leaders need to acknowledge that change can be a genuine threat. In some circumstances it will cost people responsibilities or prestige. In others it can cost people their jobs, with all the attendant threats that brings: potentially adversely impacting on relationships, finances, mental health.

So, fear of change isn’t unfounded. And neither is this response simply a question of personality type. It also reflects the difference in position between a leader and an employee. When large-scale or structural change happens, it’s driven by the leader. In many situations they have identified the need for the change, assessed how the change should be implemented and brought the change about. In other instances, the need for change may have been thrust upon them, but they still have the power to decide how to respond to that situation. Employees, on the other hand, have to adapt to imposed change. They are not determining their own destiny. That lack of control affects how they feel about what is happening.

What can leaders do?

There are a series of steps leaders can take to help make change easier:

  • Recognize that while resistance to change may occasionally be driven by apathy - or by antipathy to the individual leading the change - its root cause is more likely to be fear of the consequences of change. This recognition allows leaders to tap into what is really driving employee behavior and find effective ways of tackling it.

  • Rather than planning change behind closed doors - and then launching the new regime, as far as possible keep employees informed about what is happening. Unsurprisingly, research shows that employees feel a greater sense of job satisfaction when they feel that they know what is going on.

  • Be clear about why change is needed. If you want your workforce to buy into how things are going to change, they first need to buy into why these changes are needed. Be open and transparent about why change is going to be implemented.

  • Be active in showing people how they will be supported in managing the changes. That may be via training, or by implementing changes one at a time, so that old ways of working can run alongside the new ways of working for a time.

  • Allow employees to express concerns over the changes. Listen to them, make sure you understand what they’re saying and respond honestly. Even if you can’t do anything else, you can express your desire to help them adapt to the changes.

  • If the change is going to mean job losses, be open about that and make the necessary decisions quickly. Drawn out or staggered job cuts lead to greater anxiety and discord.

  • Be aware that while a change is taking effect people have to work harder while they get used to the changes. The routines that allow them to get things done easily and efficiently are being disrupted. Acknowledge what the teams are doing.

  • Recognize that people change and accept ‘the new,' more readily and with higher commitment when they know ‘what’s in it for them’ – the personal benefits to be realized.

Especially when large scale changes occur ensure higher levels of support and management presence in the work-place, even for experienced and more highly skilled staff. (In practice the opposite is often true and we leave people feeling isolated -- which leads to more rumors, uncertainty and anxiety developing.)

Change is inevitable. Small but significant changes occur when a colleague leaves. Huge changes occur when a business needs to be re-structured. But the key to handling the whole spectrum of change is to understand how employees may feel threatened by the shifts that are occurring. Understand the anxiety it can cause and try and find the best way of providing reassurance. When leaders do that, changes really can be for the better.

Image credit: Flickr/Rennett Stowe

Kevin Lawrence is MD of Odyssey management training - on a mission to eradicate mediocrity Odyssey specializes in leadership and management development, change, executive team development and organizational development strategy.

3p Contributor

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