15 min read
23 August 2023

Dealing with resistance to change

Kelly van der Horst
resistance to change

Is it true what they say: “without resistance no change”? It’s normal to deal with resistance to change with (digital) transformation projects. But if you don’t adequately deal with resistance to change within organisations, projects focused on increasing productivity could have the opposite effect. An insufficient approach could lead to people ignoring the new way of working, productivity declines, internal disputes and dissatisfaction, and even an increase in people resigning. How do you deal with resistance to change, so that you can get the most out of your transformation process and make it succeed? We discuss it in this blog.

Why is there resistance to change?

People are not necessarily against change. In fact, people are constantly changing the way they work. Think, for example, of colleagues who share tips and tricks to do their work quicker and more easily; these are often immediately adopted and put into practice, without being mentally registered as a “big change” (in the negative sense). But then how does resistance to change arise in larger projects?

People generally do not resist the change for the sake of simply resisting – you can assume that there is an underlying reason. It can be based on logic or emotion; both are equally important, and can have the same impact on the success or failure of your change process. Let’s look at some common causes of resistance to change.

People have no faith in the change – or in you

Imagine: you always do your work the same way. You are used to it and have found your own rhythm. You are then asked to change your way of working, without understanding why. Changing your way of working takes you time and effort, but why do you need to? What do you get out of it? In your eyes, nothing. Then why not spare yourself the inconvenience and just keep going as you’ve always done?

Faith in the change
Resistance often arises when people do not believe in the change: that it’s necessary, that it’s worth it or that the final result is an improvement on the way it is now. If people don’t see the need or the benefit of the change, it takes a lot to get them to break their regular routine and way of working, if you can at all. After all, man is a routine animal and will not just embrace every change.

It also happens that people think that the change is really not as urgent as others say it is. They do not understand the problems and the benefits it’s supposed to bring, or don’t think the change will benefit the organisation. If they resist long enough our stick their heads in the sand, this “whim” may go away on its own and they can just continue in the same way.

Faith in the project lead
In some cases, it’s not the change itself that people resist to, it’s you – the one who is leading the change process. Naturally, it’s not something that’s nice to hear, but a reason why many a project fails: people are not confident that a particular person or group can successfully complete the project, so they decide at the very beginning that they won’t spend too much time and effort on it.
These cases are absolutely painful, but not necessarily personal. There can be countless reasons for this lack of confidence. For example, it could have to do with past projects that failed, but also have to do with the fact that the people who run the project feel to distant – a sense of “how would they know how I work.”

The focus on the “own idea” is too big

The aforementioned lack of confidence can also arise due to someone ‘becoming one’ with his or her project, and them becoming insensitive to outside influences. In such cases, the person running the project has often invested so much in it, that he or she starts to link his or her own value within the organisation. They are the responsible person, they must complete the project, and they’re unsusceptible to the suggestions and opinions of others.

It’s understandable that subsequently, unwillingness arises among those who, often with the best intentions, give suggestions and opinions. The fact that these aren’t taken into account can come across as a lack of respect for their opinion and position within the company, which we’ll come back to later on in this blog.

The same effect can occur when someone is so enthusiastic about the technology that’s to be implemented, that they forget about the human aspect. It often happens that people bring in very real practical concerns and suggestions for adaptations, which are countered by someone bringing up the advantages of the technology itself, which have nothing to do with the issue. You can buy the most wonderful technological solutions, but if they are not tailored to what people need, people once again do not feel heard.

People don’t feel heard and involved

Each individual in an organisation is valuable. You can now that, and people can know that themselves, but this must also be expressed in the way people interact with each other and the extent to which people are involved in changes. This can directly influence how an individual sees his or her position and value within the organisation, and must therefore be the starting point for every change. However, this is often overlooked.

Who within an organisation is an expert in what they do? Who has acquired experience, knowledge and skills? Who knows more about their own job then the people themselves? When someone just comes and tells them that they have to do things differently, this can be experienced as demeaning – as if their knowledge and experience is not valued. Especially if they don’t get a chance to contribute, even if that would ultimately only benefit the end result. Chances are, this is perceived as a lack of respect for their opinion, skills and knowledge, which in turn can diminish people’s sense of value within the organisation – and that’s a bad thing. Change is an interaction, not just an “assignment” you can give people to complete. And if this has happened before in an organisation, no matter how small the incident, there’s a good chance people are already opposed to the next change from the get-go.

Mismanagement creates resistance

There are also projects where the resistance is initially non-existing: people generally see the need for change and agree on what needs to change. Resistance can then still arise, simply because of an inferior approach to the change process.

Imagine your organisation is in the midst of a change process. You understand how and why, and you are fully willing to help implement this change successfully. Nevertheless, throughout the entire process, you’re treated as if you’re disturbing and complicating the process. Not exactly motivating, and probably won’t result into you offering any more assistance. Maybe this will even make you change your mind about the change, and no one could blame you.
As the one running the project, it’s good to prepare for potential resistance, so that you have a plan on how to handle it if it arises. However, this is different from assuming in advance that people are against the change, and unfortunately, this is often what happens. As a result, people are also treated as such: as stubborn obstacles. Which in turn, ensures that people will actually start behaving this way. After all, they’re doing their best, they go along with the change, but that’s not noticed or appreciated.

The same effect occurs when the project has to be completed too quickly. It’s understandable that you want to implement changes quickly, but there is such a thing as too fast. Change means “new”, and that usually involves some hitches to work out. People need time to get familiarised and learn new things, and that takes time. It doesn’t help if they feel like someone’s on their tail, acting like it’s not going fast enough. When people feel rushed, resistance can develop, which ultimately slows down the process even more.

A combination of the two is disastrous, but unfortunately does happen: a change that has to be realised too quickly, people who do their best to achieve this and meanwhile are treated as if they are not cooperating. It’s no wonder that over time, they lose their enthusiasm or even stop participating in the process.

Fear of the unknown

This one seems obvious: people don’t like to disrupt their routine, especially when they don’t know how things will look like for them at the end of the road, and if that’s actually better. But there is also another aspect involved: confidence in oneself.

An unknown future can be intimidating. Especially if someone has no idea of his or her role in that future, and whether he or she can keep up. People have always done their job confidently, in the same way as always, successfully. But will they succeed with the new way of working? Are they able to do it the new way, or are they able to learn? This feeling can be reinforced by the aforementioned lack of confidence in the organisation or the person leading the change process. If there is no confidence that the person(s) offers or arranges opportunities to learn new skills, it can lead to fear that they will fail the learn the right skills to continue doing their job.

Forms of resistance to change

There are different kinds of resistance to change. Firstly, you can distinguish between the types of resistance that an individual can experience mentally, and the way people express their resistance, meaning the forms of resistance to change.

Rational, emotional and sociological resistance

First of all, it’s good to understand that one individual can mentally deal with multiple types of resistance.

Rational resistance is based on logic, facts and practical reasons. Here you can think, for example, of the incomprehension of the necessity for change, practical aspects of the change that complicate work instead of making it easier, or simply because they are too busy with something else to make time for it.

Emotional resistance is, of course, more about the feeling people get from the changes, such as the fear of the unknown or feeling undervalued because their opinion is not asked. This may be a little more difficult to solve, because sometimes the cause of these emotions is not rational, which makes it a bit more challenging to get to the root of it.

Sociological resistance often indicates changed that affect or change the dynamics of a group, or adjust the values or position of the group. It could also be the result of peer pressure: “everyone is against, so I am too.”

Expressions of resistance

There are many different ways in which people express their resistance, actively or passively. For example, you may deal with people who do not hide their negative opinions and who speak out against the changes, as well as actually go against them in behaviour. They may even try to undermine the entire process and get other people on their side. One person can have a big influence here, especially if it’s a respected figure that other people look up to, such as a team leader.

Naturally, not all forms of resistance are as intense as this. During a change process, you are more likely to experience less obvious forms of resistance. But here as well, action is required.

For example, on the other hand, you have people who understand why the change is happening, why it is needed, and who agree with the direction the organisation is going, but still find it very difficult to say goodbye to the way they always used to work. This could be expressed in defending the old process, making the problems smaller and trying to compromise, so that the change is less intimidating.

You could also deal with passive resistance from people who disagree, say nothing about it, and then lag behind in the change. In addition, there are people who are very worried about the process and think and talk a lot about it, which affects productivity. Or people who are stressed by the change, unsure of where the stress comes from, but still go against the change.

How do you get everyone on board?

Resistance to change in organisations is normal and almost always occurs; what differs is the form of resistance and its severity. This does not mean that resistance equals a doomed change, only that you have to adjust your approach accordingly. But how do you do that? How can you remove resistance to change and ensure that everyone can successfully participate?

Involve people in the change

Obvious, but oh so important. And unfortunately often a neglected or overlooked part of the change process: the people who ultimately have to implement the change.

It’s important to recognise the value of the people in the workplace and actually use them to bring the project to a successful conclusion. You may be the expert in the technology that people will work with, but people themselves are specialists in their own tasks and the way they work. So they know what they need, what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, involve them in the practical aspects of the change in order to customise it to them and their activities. This way, not only the progress of your project is more successful, but also the final outcome.

These people probably also have more knowledge of and experience with the social ins and outs. The change may be technological, but it also has social aspects. Therefore, try to uncover what impact this change has on the social functioning within the organisation. For example, is it causing a shift within the social order? What changes are these, and how do people feel about them?

It all comes down to the human aspect – people want to be treated with respect and be involved in the changes they ultimately need to make. Expecting people to adopt this indiscriminately is ineffective. That is why it is also very important to ensure that everyone is well informed about the state of affairs.

Provide good information

This brings us to provisioning information to people. As we discussed earlier in this blog, people will be less willing to break their routine if they don’t see the value of it. That is why it is all too important to start informing people before the change process.

First of all, they need to know why the change is happening. Why is it necessary what happens if the change doesn’t happen? This is the ultimate time to create urgency by making them feel the problem. And the solution, of course.
In addition to the technological advantages, focus on practical aspects, such as how much faster or easier people can complete a task after this solution is implemented. Show people the impact; the impact on the organisation, on the customer, on teams, on the individual, perhaps even on society.

A doom scenario and a dream scenario: is that enough? No, because they are both still (mentally) far from the present. Therefore, also show how you will achieve this dream scenario together. What steps will be taken? Where can people go with questions or for more information? How does all this affect their daily work? This makes the step less big, because it’s broken down into smaller steps, and less intimidating, because people know exactly where they stand.

Take the time to change step-by-step

Breaking up a change process into smaller steps makes it manageable. Trying to change everything at once makes it, in addition to overwhelming, simply too much to learn and get used to all at once. There’s also a greater chance that mistakes will be made. By transforming in steps, you can also iron out the kinks with each step (before there are so many kinks the biggest iron couldn’t handle it) and properly inform and train people.

Provide education and training

People can get more confident in themselves and comfortable with the change by organising training and ensuring people can learn about the new way of working. This is, again, a matter of ensuring that people know where they stand, but also ensures that people can successfully deal with the changes, once they’ve been implemented. Within Workspace 365 you can, for example, use the How-to live tile and integrate videos.

Communication, communication, communication

Effective communication is about more than just informing; it is also motivating. Therefore, try to keep communicating during the change process, to inspire people to continue the changes. For example, you can think of sharing small wins and successes that you have achieved together. The entire organisation has contributed to this, and they should hear that!

Lead by example

Show that you implement the changes yourself and what positive effect they have on your daily work. If you can do it, others can too! Moreover, people are unlikely to listen to someone who doesn’t practice what they preach.

Make a plan in advance

It is always wise to, in advance, take a look at the changes, the impact these changes have on the way people work, the social order, and what resistance this could evoke in people. This way, you can prepare yourself a bit and make a plan of how you can prevent, mitigate and solve this resistance. Having such a plan can also help you to avoid mismanagement.

Always keep in mind that dealing with resistance to change is not a matter of symptom relief. Go back to the base of the resistance: why do people feel this way? Where does this resistance come from? That is the only way you can find the right solution(s) to alleviate and eventually remove the resistance, so that you can become successful with your change process, together with the entire organisation.

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