June 8, 2023
Many times we talk about resistance – the resistance to change – how we manage it, the reluctance of having to deal with it, the disruption it causes either positively or negatively. But rarely do we talk about why people are resisting – what is driving the resistance.
Taking a people centric approach means looking at resistance to change through a different lens. It is looking at it from the perspective of the person or people who are resisting. In many ways, we as a people, prefer ‘an easy way of things’, so resistance is not something we seek, yet we still end up doing it and managing it.
So, lets look at the seven reasons why (excerpts taken from Leading People in Change):
Self interest – this is when the person perceives the change to have a negative impact on them in some way, typically with their status or perceived status within an organisation or team. To help people in this situation, it is best to make them a champion and use the role to raise change awareness and create a good deal of accolade with the role by sharing the importance and responsibilities of being a champion. This will help them not only have a good understanding of the change but could also elevate their status in the organisation.
Recipient perceptions – this is based on a lack of understanding or awareness of the change which many times is a result of miscommunication or mis-interpretation. So the best way to manage this resistance is to use multiple communication styles. For example, start out using a coaching style to really understand their perception and then demonstrate how their perception is different to the actual change. You could also ask them, what is it about the change that concerns them the most and then show how the change again is different or perhaps similar to that but what you will do to try an minimise or alleviate that concern.
Change approach – Many times, how the change is initially communicated or managed can create a level of resistance. I was working with a client and unfortunately the people impacted on this change found out about the change through a news report on the radio initially rather than through their managers and leaders. This had a damaging impact, as you could imagine, that raised the level of resistance considerably. This illustrates clearly the criticality, whenever possible, for the people elements to be planned and managed at the start, by involving people as much as possible – consult with them, identify focus groups and get their feedback. This is beyond just having pilots or test groups. It is about creating and sharing with small groups of people the change (direction, vision, objectives, purpose, why, etc) and ask for their opinions. You can also ask how they think their colleagues will respond and what they think would be the best way for people to receive the information which allows you to create the change and communication plans effectively.
Cultural Bias – This is typically expressed by someone saying, “We don’t do that around here.” This is more common reason for resistance than many managers/leaders realise, whenever a change is regarding a fundamental way in which people work, whether that be change the environment of the workspace or technology or a completely new policy or process that will fundamentally change their ‘everyday’. A way of managing this type of resistance is to really listen to the reasons why the change is not applicable to the culture of the organisation. What is it regarding the norms of the working day that will make this change challenging? Then ask them, what would they think need to happen in order for the change to happen and actually work? This way you are able to really understand their perspective, deal with any concerns and even potentially create a win:win by potentially committing to further actions, not previously considered, in order to ‘fix’ the cultural challenge.
Historical organisation – Out of all the reasons to resist, this one can be really quite tricky because it stems from the understanding that the organisation tried the change before and it did not work. So, it is critical to know this from the outset, don’t hide from it – in fact, highlight what the change was last time, recognise the issues and why it failed. Then you will need to be very clear in how this change is different in the sense, all the previous challenges are being considered/dealt with and managed, how has the change changed from the previous time and why it is important that the change succeeds this time and what you need and the whole organisation needs to make that happen – whether this is greater financial investment, more people involved, processes or policies change to help, etc.
Psychological – The psychological reason for resistance is many times around the fear of change or the stress of it. This is many times a perception and through coaching, a leader/manager can help an individual with this type of resistance. This can also be time-consuming depending on the level of fear, so that may need to be taken into consideration. Is this person critical to team/work going forward? Would it be a major shame to loose them and if so, then the investment is valuable. If not, then you may want to consider limiting the level of investment. Furthermore, it is very important when dealing with this type of resistance to understand the level of fear, and by that I mean is the fear so extreme that is a phobia? This may sound like a step too far, but I have worked with a number of organisations when some people have a real phobia of technology and will do whatever they can to avoid technology, whenever possible. If this is the case, then the amount and level of coaching will also be greater to help an individual get through this phobia and it may require additional external support, as well.
Emotional – We need to get comfortable and resolute in the fact that we need to help people and ourselves manage, lead and deal with emotions. I don’t mean our own emotion in the sense we hide it – exactly the opposite. We need to be able to share our emotions but when it comes to managing and leading, we need to be able to do this in a controlled and constructive way, which can be difficult. Likewise, we also will need to learn how to cope when someone is emotional. What will we do when someone cries? Will we pretend it is not happening, which typically happens now?
I would suggest reacting in the same way we would do with a friend – get them a tissue; pull them aside and ask what is wrong and/or can we help in any way. Another challenging emotion is when someone shouts? Will we run away and hide? Bury our head? Or face it head on? When someone is shouting, they are usually expressing some anger or frustration. So how would we deal with a friend like this – again pull them aside and ask if they need to take a walk/get some air and then offer to talk about when they get back.
How we deal with emotion in our personal lives now will transpire into the workplace as both places meld into one. I am not saying we treat all the people in work as our friend, but during emotional moments, it is that level of empathy and human connection that is needed from leaders.
With all of these different reasons to resist, it is critical to really take into account the whole person by empathising and sympathising with individuals. We do this by listening, and I mean really listen: hear what they are saying, how they are saying it and what they are not saying in the way they are saying it. Does this sound like a lot and is it complicated – yes. It’s people not rocket science. We are human not robots, so no algorithm or formula can ‘fix’ the issues and put everything right. We need to accept and understand that we all have emotions, we will all go through them at different rates and we will all have are own moments even when we are positive about it and that is ok – genuinely ok. It does not mean we have failed or that we are terrible or it is all crap – it just means we are human and we are working with other humans and as a result, we will resist, one way or another.
Showing our concern and our emotions helps demonstrate we are listening and are here to help, as and when we can, to lead people through the change.
Jennifer Bryan is a published author, speaker and Director of Change and Leadership, who has worked with nearly 40 different organisations across multiple industries. She is also a Non Executive Board Member of the ACMP (Association of Change Management Professionals) UK Chapter. She believes in helping people – in whatever capacity she can – by making sure people are thought of first, last and throughout change projects and programmes. She has created a unique leading change framework, the ABChange Model, and uses her commercial insight to help lead people in change. Jennifer is author of Leading People in Change – A practical guide.