Why is leading a change so difficult for a manager? To answer that question it is important to understand both why people resist change and what is the likely range of behavioral consequences of that resistance.
From Peter Topping, a change management expert, here is a list of reasons why resistance to change is so prevalent in the workplace and some suggestions to become an effective change agent.
• Fear of the unknown
Change implies uncertainty, and uncertainty is uncomfortable. Not knowing what may potentially happen often leads to heightened anxiety. Most people will do whatever they can to reduce their levels of anxiety, and resisting change is one of these actions.
How to overcome this resistance: inform and help the people to envision a positive future. You may not be able to paint a complete picture of where the organization is headed, but you should at least be able to articulate a vision of the direction in which the company is going. The main point is to communicate that the new direction is the right direction and staying on the old path would eventually lead to serious decline.
• Fear of failure
We know how to operate in the existing order, and the new one may require skills and abilities that are beyond our capabilities. We may fail, hence the resistance to trying a new approach.
How to overcome this resistance: help individuals develop confidence that they will fit into the new order. It is particularly important to be encouraging and positive rather than authoritarian.
Show patience with their initial limited success, provide support for their continuing learning, and express confidence in their ability to perform are all important in helping people overcome their anxieties at work
• Not understanding the need for change
A common perspective among people working in companies is related to the expression “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This is due to the lack of a felt need for the change. The typical question is: “We’ve been successful going the way we’ve been going, so why do we suddenly need to follow a very different path?”.
How to overcome this resistance: make sure you are communicating the need for change in a way the person can understand it, which could be very different from the way you understand it. Very often the top-down communications strategy is built around emails that announce changes and this leads to a serious disconnect across organizational levels. Adopt face-to-face dialogs that focus on the reasons for changing, focusing your attention on the frontline leaders.
• Disagreement with the way to change
A closely related factor that causes resistance to change is the feeling that the new direction is the wrong direction. This is common in organizations with a track record of frequent and maybe ineffective change initiatives. Total quality, continuous process improvement, self-directed work teams, and learning organizations very often lacked of a real commitment and were poorly planned or ineffectively implemented.
How to overcome this resistance: listen and make people believe their opinion matters and that someone in authority cares enough to hear them out. You might learn something you didn’t know, or get clues about how others might be thinking. Listening helps to build trust, and you will need to gain their trust as the change process unfolds. The individuals who disagree don’t have to be convinced that they are wrong, only that they need to support the decision that has been made.
• Losing something of value
A manager can talk all he/she wants to about the strategic imperatives and the complexities of doing business in the global environment, but all that associates really want to know is how the change will affect them. They will assume a “WIIFM?” (what’s in it for me?) position. To get them to buy in, communicating to them at that level, will necessary, otherwise they will resist. The more significant the perceived loss, the more strong the resistance.
How to overcome this resistance: you must first be honest. They may be right, and to attempt to persuade them that they are not losing anything will destroy your credibility. It is important to try to determine what is being lost—competence, money, relationships, power, job security? Once acknowledged their notion of loss try to help the individuals see the issue from a different perspective: the loss would be greater if they continued resisting. Help them understand about what they have to gain from becoming a positive part of the change process.
Change requires effort. Sometimes a significant one. People can fully understand the need for change, believe that it is the right thing to do for the company, see their potential gain and know that it could be done well. The path of least resistance can be however still chosen if people are provided with the option. Don’t underestimate the power of fatigue and burnout.
How to overcome this resistance: energy and enthusiasm will have a tremendous influence on others. If you do not demonstrate energetic support for the change effort do not expect your staff to do so. They learn from you and are heavily influenced by your actions.
If you want to play the role of an effective change agent, here are a few proactive tactics that should assist you in gaining buy-in:
1. Involve people as soon as you can. The longer you wait to discuss the need for change with associates, the more they will distrust what you are doing to them. View this as an ongoing series of dialogs rather than a finished product you are delivering to the staff.
2. If you are coming into your organization as a new manager, the longer you wait to break the status quo, the more resistant people will become to change. Avoid on the other hand sudden dramatic changes without having spent any time understanding the organizational dynamics.
3. Identify the individuals who are most receptive to change. Start with the people who are most likely to respond positively to operating differently and help them to demonstrate success. If you spend all your energy on the heavy resistors, you won’t have any left for the associates who are ready to change.
4. Avoid criticizing the way things have been done in the past. As you get started, find a way to acknowledge that the way things were done in the past was probably appropriate for the situation at that time. Then help to see that the future will require new practices and keep their attention focused forward, not backward.
5. Be careful not to talk a lot about the way you did things in your previous position or company. It is very irritating to listen to someone constantly saying things like “Well, when I was in sales (or in X Corporation), we did things this way. ” The typical reaction people have to this type of comment is “Why don’t you go back if it was such a better place?” A different way to make your point, without aggravating your associates, is to say “From my experiences, I have learned that. . . .”
6. Get everyone involved. For example, make sure the people who have to execute a new process are the ones helping to design it. Their ownership over the change will increase exponentially the more they believe they have control over the change.
Adapted from Peter A. Topping, Managerial Leadership, The McGraw-HIll Executive MBA Series, 2002