Resistance to Change

Overcoming Resistance to Change: Top Ten Reasons for Change Resistance
by A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.

Top Ten Reasons People Resist Change:

1. THE RISK OF CHANGE IS SEEN AS GREATER THAN THE RISK OF STANDING STILL
Making a change requires a kind of leap of faith:  you decide to move in the direction of the unknown on the promise that something will be better for you.  But you have no proof.  Taking that leap of faith is risky, and people will only take active steps toward the unknown if they genuinely believe – and perhaps more importantly, feel – that the risks of standing still are greater than those of moving forward in a new direction.  Making a change is all about managing risk.  If you are making the case for change, be sure to set out in stark, truthful terms why you believe the risk situation favors change.  Use numbers whenever you can, because we in the West pay attention to numbers.  At the very least, they get our attention, and then when the rational mind is engaged, the emotional mind (which is typically most decisive) can begin to grapple with the prospect of change.  But if you only sell your idea of change based on idealistic, unseen promises of reward, you won’t be nearly as effective in moving people to action.  The power of the human fight-or-flight response can be activated to fight for change, but that begins with the perception of risk.

2. PEOPLE FEEL CONNECTED TO OTHER PEOPLE WHO ARE IDENTIFIED WITH THE OLD WAY
We are a social species.  We become and like to remains connected to those we know, those who have taught us, those with whom we are familiar – even at times to our own detriment.  Loyalty certainly helped our ancestors hunt antelope and defend against the aggressions of hostile tribes, and so we are hard wired, I believe, to form emotional bonds of loyalty, generally speaking.  If you ask people in an organization to do things in a new way, as rational as that new way may seem to you, you will be setting yourself up against all that hard wiring, all those emotional connections to those who taught your audience the old way - and that’s not trivial.  At the very least, as you craft your change message, you should make statements that honor the work and contributions of those who brought such success to the organization in the past, because on a very human but seldom articulated level, your audience will feel asked to betray their former mentors (whether those people remain in the organization or not). A little good diplomacy at the outset can stave off a lot of resistance. 

3. PEOPLE HAVE NO ROLE MODELS FOR THE NEW ACTIVITY
Never underestimate the power of observational learning.  If you see yourself as a change agent, you probably are something of a dreamer, someone who uses the imagination to create new possibilities that do not currently exist.  Well, most people don’t operate that way.  It’s great to be a visionary, but communicating a vision is not enough. Get some people on board with your idea, so that you or they can demonstrate how the new way can work. Operationally, this can mean setting up effective pilot programs that model a change and work out the kinks before taking your innovation “on the road.”  For most people, seeing is believing.  Less rhetoric and more demonstration can go a long way toward overcoming resistance, changing people’s objections from the “It can’t be done!” variety to the “How can we get it done?” category.

4. PEOPLE FEAR THEY LACK THE COMPETENCE TO CHANGE
This is a fear people will seldom admit.  But sometimes, change in organizations necessitates changes in skills, and some people will feel that they won’t be able to make the transition very well.  They don’t think they, as individuals, can do it.  The hard part is that some of them may be right.  But in many cases, their fears will be unfounded, and that’s why part of moving people toward change requires you to be an effective motivator.  Even more, a successful change campaign includes effective new training programs, typically staged from the broad to the specific.  By this I mean that initial events should be town-hall type information events, presenting the rationale and plan for change, specifying the next steps, outlining future communications channels for questions, etc., and specifying how people will learn the specifics of what will be required of them, from whom, and when.  Then, training programs must be implemented and evaluated over time.  In this way, you can minimize the initial fear of a lack of personal competence for change by showing how people will be brought to competence throughout the change process.  Then you have to deliver.

5. PEOPLE FEEL OVERLOADED AND OVERWHELMED
Fatigue can really kill a change effort, for an individual or for an organization.  If, for example, you believe you should quit smoking, but you’ve got ten projects going and four kids to keep up with, it can be easy to put off your personal health improvement project (until your first heart attack or cancer scare, when suddenly the risks of standing still seem greater than the risks of change!).  When you’re introducing a change effort, be aware of fatigue as a factor in keeping people from moving forward, even if they are telling you they believe in the wisdom of your idea.  If an organization has been through a lot of upheaval, people may resist change just because they are tired and overwhelmed, perhaps at precisely the time when more radical change is most needed!  That’s when you need to do two things:  re-emphasize the risk scenario that forms the rationale for change (as in my cancer scare example), and also be very generous and continuously attentive with praise, and with understanding for people’s complaints, throughout the change process.  When you reemphasize the risk scenario, you’re activating people’s fears, the basic fight-or-flight response we all possess.  But that’s not enough, and fear can produce its own fatigue. You’ve got to motivate and praise accomplishments as well, and be patient enough to let people vent (without getting too caught up in attending to unproductive negativity).

6. PEOPLE HAVE A HEALTHY SKEPTICISM AND WANT TO BE SURE NEW IDEAS ARE SOUND
It’s important to remember that few worthwhile changes are conceived in their final, best form at the outset.  Healthy skeptics perform an important social function:  to vet the change idea or process so that it can be improved upon along the road to becoming reality.  So listen to your skeptics, and pay attention, because some percentage of what they have to say will prompt genuine improvements to your change idea (even if some of the criticism you will hear will be based more on fear and anger than substance).

7. PEOPLE FEAR HIDDEN AGENDAS AMONG WOULD-BE REFORMERS
Let’s face it, reformers can be a motley lot.  Not all are to be trusted.  Perhaps even more frightening, some of the worst atrocities modern history has known were begun by earnest people who really believed they knew what was best for everyone else.  Reformers, as a group, share a blemished past . . . And so, you can hardly blame those you might seek to move toward change for mistrusting your motives, or for thinking you have another agenda to follow shortly.  If you seek to promote change in an organization, not only can you expect to encounter resentment for upsetting the established order and for thinking you know better than everyone else, but you may also be suspected of wanted to increase your own power, or even eliminate potential opposition through later stages of change. 

I saw this in a recent change management project for which I consulted, when management faced a lingering and inextinguishable suspicion in some quarters that the whole affair was a prelude to far-reaching layoffs.  It was not the case, but no amount of reason or reassurance sufficed to quell the fears of some people.  What’s the solution?  Well, you’d better be interested in change for the right reasons, and not for personal or factional advantage, if you want to minimize and overcome resistance. And you’d better be as open with information and communication as you possibly can be, without reacting unduly to accusations and provocations, in order to show your good faith, and your genuine interest in the greater good of the organization.  And if your change project will imply reductions in workforce, then be open about that and create an orderly process for outplacement and in-house retraining.  Avoid the drip-drip-drip of bad news coming out in stages, or through indirect communication or rumor.  Get as much information out there as fast as you can and create a process to allow everyone to move on and stay focused on the change effort.

8. PEOPLE FEEL THE PROPOSED CHANGE THREATENS THEIR NOTIONS OF THEMSELVES
Sometimes change on the job gets right to a person’s sense of identity. When a factory worker begins to do less with her hands and more with the monitoring of automated instruments, she may lose her sense of herself as a craftsperson, and may genuinely feel that the very things that attracted her to the work in the first place have been lost. I saw this among many medical people and psychologists during my graduate training, as the structures of medical reimbursement in this country changed in favor of the insurance companies, HMO’s and managed care organizations.  Medical professionals felt they had less say in the treatment of their patients, and felt answerable to less well trained people in the insurance companies to approve treatments the doctors felt were necessary.  And so, the doctors felt they had lost control of their profession, and lost the ability to do what they thought best for patients. 

My point is not to take sides in that argument, but to point out how change can get right to a person’s sense of identity, the sense of self as a professional.  As a result, people may feel that the intrinsic rewards that brought them to a particular line of work will be lost with the change.  And in some cases, they may be absolutely right. The only answer is to help people see and understand the new rewards that may come with a new work process, or to see how their own underlying sense of mission and values can still be realized under the new way of operating.  When resistance springs from these identity-related roots, it is deep and powerful, and to minimize its force, change leaders must be able to understand it and then address it, acknowledging that change does have costs, but also, (hopefully) larger benefits.

9. PEOPLE ANTICIPATE A LOSS OF STATUS OR QUALITY OF LIFE
Real change reshuffles the deck a bit.  Reshuffling the deck can bring winners . . . and losers.  Some people, most likely, will gain in status, job security, quality of life, etc. with the proposed change, and some will likely lose a bit.  Change does not have to be a zero sum game, and change can (and should) bring more advantage to more people than disadvantage.  But we all live in the real world, and let’s face it – if there were no obstacles (read: people and their interests) aligned against change, then special efforts to promote change would be unnecessary. 

Some people will, in part, be aligned against change because they will clearly, and in some cases correctly, view the change as being contrary to their interests.  There are various strategies for minimizing this, and for dealing with steadfast obstacles to change in the form of people and their interests, but the short answer for dealing with this problem is to do what you can to present the inevitability of the change given the risk landscape, and offer to help people to adjust. Having said that, I’ve never seen a real organizational change effort that did not result in some people choosing to leave the organization, and sometimes that’s best for all concerned. When the organization changes, it won’t be to everyone’s liking, and in that case, it’s best for everyone to be adult about it and move on.

10.  PEOPLE GENUINELY BELIEVE THAT THE PROPOSED CHANGE IS A BAD IDEA
I’ll never forget what a supervisor of mine said to be, during the year after I had graduated from college, secure as I was in the knowledge of my well earned, pedigreed wisdom at age twenty-two.  We were in a meeting, and I made the comment, in response to some piece of information, “Oh, I didn’t know that!”  Ricky, my boss, looked at me sideways, and commented dryly, “Things you don’t know . . . fill libraries.”  The truth is, sometimes someone’s (even – gasp! – my) idea of change is just not a good idea.  Sometimes people are not being recalcitrant, or afraid, or muddle-headed, or nasty, or foolish when they resist.  They just see that we’re wrong. And even if we’re not all wrong, but only half wrong, or even if we’re right, it’s important not to ignore when people have genuine, rational reservations or objections. 

Not all resistance is about emotion, in spite of this list I’ve assembled here.  To win people’s commitment for  change, you must engage them on both a rational level and an emotional level. I’ve emphasized the emotional side of the equation for this list because I find, in my experience, that this is the area would-be change agents understand least well.  But I’m also mindful that a failure to listen to and respond to people’s rational objections and beliefs is ultimately disrespectful to them, and to assume arrogantly that we innovative, change agent types really do know best.  A word to the wise:  we’re just as fallible as anyone.
 

Copyright (c) 2003 A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.
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Dr. A. J. Schuler is an expert in leadership and organizational change. To find out more about his programs and services, visit www.SchulerSolutions.com or call (703) 370-6545. 

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